While the rest of the country progresses into the 21st-century, Mississippi stands apart as a bridge to the past. Its various regions hold tight to their traditions, clinging to what the people consider their birthright and the only way to live. The Gulf Coast loves their seafood and more progressive ways (by Mississippi standards, of course). The central part of the state prides itself on the Confederate mentality. Then there’s the Delta and Hill Country, birthplace of the blues.
Jackson native Archie Storey is doing his part to help preserve blues history, keeping it alive by building guitars out of cigar boxes like the first blues musicians did.
“I started building cigar box guitars, the Mississippi Blues Box, in 2006,” Storey said, strumming on a red one string diddley bow in his backyard. “I’ve always been in music, and so I wanted to find my niche . . . and that was cigar box guitars.”
Greg Johnson, Blues Curator, Archives and Special Collections, of the J.D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi says it’s hard to, with any sort of accuracy, really pinpoint the earliest dates of cigar box guitars.
“We do know that the earliest blues musicians in the Delta and Hill Country built them by taking a piece of wire and nailing it to the side of building, increasing tension, plucking with one hand and using a bottle as a slide,” Johnson said.
Sometimes called a diddley bow, where famous blues musician and McComb, Mississippi native Bo Diddley got his name, the cigar box guitar was first seen in drawings of Confederate soldiers using them as violins.
“There’s not a lot of documentary evidence, but putting two and two together, I would think they started making them when slavery was still legal…out of necessity because people brought through on the slave trade weren’t allowed to bring instruments, so they had to get creative.”
The single string versions served the formula of the first versions of the blues. “It’s really about the rhythmic drive more than any sort of chord changes,” Johnson said.
Archie left the Gulf Coast in late 2005 after Hurricane Katrina took the life out of the region, moving back to his hometown of Jackson out of necessity. “I didn’t plan on ever leaving Biloxi, but Katrina had other plans,” he said after explaining how he and his wife, Kristie, wanted to build a life there.
It takes him about two weeks to build a guitar from start to finish. He sells them pretty quickly, mostly while setting up vendor tents at all the blues festivals in the state. But his real reason for going is to hear the blues.
Archie, named after the most famous quarterback in Ole Miss history, truly cares about the blues and preserving its heritage and custom. It was that dedication that brought him to the attention of Mike Rowe, who did a story on him for Dirty Jobs, his popular television show on CNN.
“There is a novelty aspect, like a Spam bow, (made from a can of Spam) but there are people trying to keep the thing alive, because it forces you to play and think differently about the music,” Greg said. “You really have to work it instead of staying in one position like a traditional guitar.”
This aspect is what attracts professional musicians to the instrument.
“Oh, yeah,” Storey said with his larger than life laugh. “I forgot about that one. I guess he’s kind of a big deal.”
Storey builds his guitars under his company’s name, Mississippi Blues Box, selling them between $150 and $500.
“Every guitar I build is a different guitar,” Storey said. “No two are the same.”
He stresses that it’s more about preserving his piece of Mississippi history and encourages others to try to build their own.
“It’s just a box and a stick,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”