The Quills: the forgotten American folk woodwind.
The Quills are a early American folk panpipe, first noted in the early part of the 19th century among Afro-American slaves in the south. They are aerophones, and fall into the panpipe family. They are assumed to be of African origin, since similar instruments are found in various parts of Africa, and they were first used by 1st and 2nd generation Africans in America.
The "Quills" are a set of cane pipes, numbering from two to at least 8, with each piece of cane stopped at one end by a node, and open at the other. The pipes are often bound together and are played by blowing across the open ends of the tubes.
The Quills would probably be forgotten today if not for the excellent recordings by the entertainer and early bluesman Henry Thomas, made in the late 1920s. Alec Lomax and others have recorded traditional players in the field as well.
The Quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories, some dating back to the late 1700s. At that time, the instrument appears to consist of two or more cane pipes, played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by shouts, whoops and songs. They are mentioned fairly often in oral histories but little structural and musical information has survived. Considering how popular they appear to have been, it is surprising that they are almost unheard of today. Quills were also used by free blacks in New Orleans in the 1800s. Two bluesmen recorded songs with the Quills in the 1920, and a rural folk tradition has survived to this day in the American south.
I've heard that the word "Quill" is an colonial era term for a hollow tube of any sort, but have been unable to confirm this.
Surviving African Traditions
A number of villages in Zimbabwe and Mozambique maintained a tradition of pan-pipe playing well into this century, and a few continue to play to this day.
The earliest recordings of these ensembles are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, who traveled through southern Africa between 1935 and 1955, making a series of exceptional recordings of traditional music. His recordings are available from the International Library of African Music (ILAM).
The earliest examples that I am aware of are from the field recordings of Hugh Tracy, many of which can be heard on the recording Flutes and Horns. This recording can be previewed and ordered from this web site in South Africa: http://ilam.ru.ac.za/moa/moa030.htm
Some of these recordings bear a striking resemblance to the American recordings of Sid Hemphill.
Another great recording is of the Nyanga panpipes from Mozambique is "Traditional Music of Cancune, Mozambique",
recorded by Joel Laviolette around the year 2000. Joel now teaches how to make and play panpipes in this tradition at workshops around America, particularly at Zimfest. Currently, instruments in this style are made out of plastic plumbing tubing, softened over a fire and worked by hand, rolling the end of the pipe until the pitch is correct.
It should be noted that southern African nations never had a substantial slave trade with the United States, and so it is unlikely that the tradition came directly from these tribes in southern Africa. The instrument may have had greater spread in west Africa in previous centuries, but perhaps has died out since then.
Are there any original surviving quills?
Lomax reports that when he revisited some of the locations where he had recorded Quills players, the tradition had pretty much died out. I hope that there are still some players from that tradition, and the skills of making sets of quills has not died out entirely, however I am not aware of any.
I also hope that older instruments still exist. It seems reasonable to think that these instruments survive, perhaps still kept in the family of the players, and perhaps in small museums in the south. If you know of the location of any, please let me know!
I was told by banjo scholar Scott Odell that the collection in the Smithsonian once contained a set of Quills that had been donated in the late 1800s along with a Mountain Dulcimer. Its current whereabouts is unknown, and it may have been lost.
Only a few players have been recorded playing an instrument called the quills prior to the folk revival.
Big Boy Cleveland
Cleveland's Quills Blues can be heard at this site: Document Records (search for "The Songster Tradition 1927 - 1935".
It is likely that Cleveland is actually playing the cane fife (also called the quills). For more information on the cane fife, see the following pages on folkstreams.net:
Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew
Sid Hemphill and Alec Askew were recorded by Alan Lomax, and their playing is included in the Alan Lomax collection, Southern Journey, Vol. 1. A clip of Hemphill's playing can be heard on Amazon.com's page for this recording. Another interesting recording is Traveling Through the Jungle, which features a different performance by Hemphill.
There is another recording from Alan Lomax's field recordings featuring Alec Askew playing the "4 hole quills" included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672), where Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes--this makes analysis easy, and I've included the tuning of this set of pipes after the section on Henry Thomas below.
By far, the most information we have about this instrument comes from the early blues recordings by Henry Thomas. I became interested in the Quills because I study woodwinds, and some friends who listen to (and play) a lot of early blues played Thomas's "Bull doze Blues" for me. That's about all it took--Thomas's music is so strong and vibrant, even through the medium of a 78rpm recording, that I was hooked. We started to discuss what it would take to build a set of pan-pipes as close to Thomas's as we could.
Thomas left little in the way of documents about his life, and no sets of his instruments have survived. I've heard that some instruments cataloged as Quills can be found in small, southern museums, and I have heard a rumor that a set of quills was donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1800's along with a dulcimer. The quill's whereabouts are currently unknown however.
What this means is that we are left to apply some of the techniques that I've learned to reconstruct historical European woodwinds. In this case, there are no pictures to go by, but in this case we have something much more valuable, actual recordings of the instrument.
During his recording career, Henry Thomas made eight known recordings using the quills for Vocalion, recorded in 1927 and 1929.
These recordings can be heard on two collections:
I have written to Document to ask for information regarding the instrument shown on the cover, but received no reply. I assume that the instrument shown is an example of the style, but not an instrument linked in any way to Thomas. (I would love to learn otherwise!).
Some clips can be heard on the Amazon site for both these recordings, including several tracks that feature the Quills. Some of these, such as Bulldoze Blues, and Fishing Blues have become blues classics.
How do I get a set of Quills?
As far as I (or anyone else I've asked knows) you make it. African players make their own instruments, and I imagine that Henry Thomas did as well. Cane does not survive well, and there are no known surviving instruments.
Fortunately, we have a great deal of information in the form of audio recordings, which we can study to determine fairly precise measurements that will allow us to reproduce the instrument that Thomas played. We can learn a great deal about the instruments from these recordings.
I started with Bulldoze Blues, which stands out for a especially well played quills part. Here is a short except from Bull Doze Blues in case you are not familiar with the song.
I first tried to listen to the piece to determine the number of pipes, and then apply audio analysis tools to a digital recording of the song in order to determine the exact pitch of the pipes--some of them sound for too short a period of time (for me, at least) to get an accurate feel for the pitch of the pipe by ear.
This worked fairly well, and I was able to determine that 8 different notes were sounded, so that the instrument contained at least 8 pipes. I had less luck with the audio analysis. I used the Spectrum tools in Sound Forge, but some of the notes sounded for too short a period of time still to get an accurate rendering. This was obvious after I had made some bamboo prototypes (thanks to some generous neighbors who let me raid their bamboo patch).
Although the pipes were tuned within .25 Hz. using a frequency generator and an oscilloscope, the finished instrument did not play well with the original instrument. Clearly, something was wrong.
I decided to make larger samples for analysis by condensing all notes of a particular pitch into a single file. This proved to be an straightforward but time consuming task, again using Sound Forge. I simply worked my way through the master file, and clipped each quills note, and appended it to a file that held other notes of the same pipe. The results are linked below:
Starting from lowest to highest in pitch. You can click on the pipe number to hear the final track for that pipe.
|Pipe number||Total duration of sound||Approximate pitch of highest point of graph||Approximate pitch of note estimated by ear||Approximate Amplitude of note|
|Pipe 1||2.4||676 Hz||680 Hz||-37 dB|
|Pipe 2||2.9||731 Hz||731 Hz||-36 dB|
|Pipe 3||14.6||854 Hz||851 Hz||-34 dB|
|Pipe 4||8.3||961 Hz||961 Hz||-36 dB|
|Pipe 5||17.9||1061 Hz||1055 Hz||-36 dB|
|Pipe 6||10.5||1247 Hz||1256 Hz||-33 dB|
|Pipe 7||0.6||1421 Hz||1442 Hz||-40 dB|
|Pipe 8||3.6||1666 Hz||1696 Hz||-32 dB|
The approximate pitch is just that--approximate. When playing the quills, it is possible to play the pipe so that it's pitch varies a considerable amount. It is also possible that the record it's self was pressed slightly off center, causing different notes to playback at slightly different frequencies. In any case, it is a starting point for a more accurate analysis. This time, I selected the entire body of each one of these audio files, and subjected them to Sound Forge's Spectrum Analysis tools. The results are shown below. You can click on each graph to view a full-size image.
|Pipe number||Spectrum analysis from Sound Forge 7, full sample is selected.||Approximate pitch of highest point of graph||Approximate pitch of note estimated by ear|
The note is split into two peaks at 676 and 687. When analyzed by ear, the pitch seems to fall around 680, which makes sense, since the ear tends to average out rapid variation in pitch.
There is some variation and "flutter-tounging on this note, which gives a range of perceived pitches. I've chosen 1055 as the strongest note heard, but you might feel otherwise. The pipes play sharp when the player blows harder, and that is clearly what is happening in some of the samples used to make this track.
Another short sample with two nodes. Although the peak is on the lower node, the note sounds higher, as shown to the right.
The pipes with the longest samples provide the most accurate results.
The recording of Bulldoze blues plays back a bit sharp of the key of Ab. It is said that Henry Thomas played with a capo high on the neck of his guitar, so this is very possible. It is also possible that the recording machine ran a bit slow, which would have given a faster sounding performance and a higher pitch. This was done on occasion by 78 rpm recording engineers to add more punch to a recording. If this was the case, and the recording was as much as a semitone sharp, the key of G would be a reasonable guess for the original key of the song.
|Pipe number||Note name and reference pitch, A=440||Difference||Approximate pitch of note by ear||Approximate Amplitude of note|
|Eb (6th octave) 622.25
Not represented in this octave.
|Pipe 1||E (6th octave) 659.26.
Not a member of the scale, but rather a "blues" note that always slides into F.
|20.74 Hz||680 Hz||-37 dB|
|Pipe 2||F (6th octave) 698.45||32.55 Hz||731 Hz||-36 dB|
|G (6th octave) 783.99|
|Pipe 3||Ab (6th octave) 830.60||20.4 Hz||851 Hz||-34 dB|
|Pipe 4||Bb (6th octave) 932.32||28.68 Hz||961 Hz||-36 dB|
|Pipe 5||C (7th octave) 1046.50||8.5 Hz||1055 Hz||-36 dB|
|Db (7th octave) 1108.73|
|Pipe 6||Eb (7th octave) 1244.50||11.5 Hz||1256 Hz||-33 dB|
|Pipe 7||F (7th octave) 1396.91||45.09 Hz||1442 Hz||-40 dB|
|G 7th octave) 1567.982.|
|Pipe 8||Ab (7th octave) 1661.21||34.79 Hz||1696 Hz||-32 dB|
It is likely that the whole set of pipes is tuned a bit sharp (or the cutting lathe for the recording was running a bit slower than 78 rpm). Other than that, one oddity that stands out is that the first pipe plays a E, and the 6th pipe plays an Eb. This causes some problems when determining the scale and mode of the instrument, although I'm certain it did not bother Thomas at all--the sharpened E is always used to slide into the F pipe, and is never played on it's own. In other words, it might be a "blue" note, used for effect.
It may be that cane was not available in a proper size for a longer pipe to play Eb, or it may just be that this is the effect that Thomas wanted. In any case, it works very well.
The Eb in the second octave is played as a true scale element, and is used much more often (10 seconds total, compared to 2 total for the first pipe).
For ease of playing with other instruments such as the guitar, it makes sense to assume that the recording is about a semitone fast, and that the first note is un-intentionally sharp. If you take the values shown above and drop them by about a semitone, and flatten the first pipe to match it's octave, you end up with a pentatonic scale in the key of G, starting on the note D. This is a very reasonable pitch to use for a set if all you want to do is play Quills.
The first step here is to figure out what size pipes (length and width) would provide the pitches shown in the chart. Since there is no easy way of calculating this, I did some empirical research on the physics of stopped pipes which can be found at the following page: The Acoustics of Pan Pipes.
|Adjusted pitch||Estimated internal length from graph||Internal diameter Bore|
These numbers are far more precise than are needed for an instrument made out of a irregular material like bamboo. The bore can be a good bit larger or smaller (experiment with what gives you a good, strong sound). You should start each pipe longer than you think you need by at least a couple of mm. You can always make a shorter pipe, but never a longer one.
The rest of this discussion takes a more detailed approach, reconstructing a pitch-accurate instrument that matches the recorded instrument, without any adjustments. Knowing what we know about the acoustics of stopped pipes, what would this set of pipes have looked like?
The first step here is to figure out what size pipes (length and width) would provide the pitches shown in the chart. Since there is no easy way of calculating this, I did some research on the physics of stopped pipes which can be found at the following page: The Acoustics of Pan Pipes.
Based on the information on that page, the following values look like good starting points for making a reproduction of Thomas's instrument to match the pitch of the recordings.
|Pitch from recording||Estimated internal length from graph||Internal diameter Bore|
Now that we know how many pipes were in the instrument and roughly what the length and diameter of the pipes would have been, the next step is to acquire the appropriate materials. Many historical sources that mention the quills mention that they were made of cane. In the American south, this can be only one plant--Arundinaria Gigantea, also known as Southern Cane, Switch Cane, and Canebrake Bamboo. It is the only native bamboo found in North America, and is common in southern states. For more information, see the page: Cane.
I am in the process of finding a source for cane to create reproductions. If you happen to live near a canebrake, I'd be glad to trade a reproduction set for some raw materials!
Until I get a set of real cane quills, bamboo is a adequate second choice, so this is where I've focused my attention at the moment. Another good source is South-American "trade" panpipes, which are often sold in import stores. The cane in these instruments is thin-walled, and the pipes are usually finished enough to play well. A good friend and neighbor, Chris (who has helped me with my work and research for this web page) has created an excellent set using this method:
There is a field recording from Alan Lomax featuring Alec Askew playing the "4 hole quills". As mentioned before, this recording is included on the Document CD Field Recordings Vol 15 (DOCD 5672).
On this recording, Lomax asks Askew to play the individual notes--this makes analysis easy.
4 hole quills mp3 extract
The notes are:
|1188-1192 hz||D||70 mm long||6.5 mm id|
|991-1004 hz||B||85 mm long||7.5 mm id|
|874-882 hz||A||95 mm long||8.5 mm id|
|779-790 hz||G||106 mm long||9.5 mm id|
Although the track is called 4-hole quills, Askew plays one note 3 times each time he goes through the scale. This makes me wonder if perhaps there were repeated pipes at that pitch included in his set. The tune that Askew plays later in the recording show no evidence of this repetition, however.
Chris, my next door neighbor, called me over one day to listen to a Henry Thomas song, Buldoze Blues (1927) that he had playing while he painted his house. One thing led to another, and we began speculating on the history and construction of the quills. From that point, we began doing some research--I analyzed Buldoze Blues to determine the number of pipes and pitches used, and Chris started tracking down materials by talking to friends and family who either knew botany or lived in the south. We quickly discovered that cane, the material used to make Quills, has the botanical name Arundinaria Gigantea, is the only native North American species of bamboo, and can still be found in "canebrakes" in the south.
Chris contacted his cousin in Tennessee, who knew a local botanist, who directed her to a local stand of cane. Chris is now in the process of hiring his cousin's daughter to get permission and to cut some cane for our experiments. He also discovered that the fishing poles his grandfather gave him as a child were made of the same material, cane.
While Chris was doing that, I started researching and collecting information on the Quills. For an instrument that was reported to be common at one time in the south, it is almost never recorded, and to my knowledge, no one has tried to systematically collect what information is available. This seems strange to me, since America is rich in folklorists, and poor in native folk musical instruments, particularly woodwinds.
In any case, these pages are our effort to pull what we have found out about the quills together in one place. I hope it helps other amateurs like ourselves to better understand early afro-American music, as well as to encourage others who may have a greater understanding of the subject to come forward and add to the story.
I also want to add a tip-of-the-hat to the good folks at the country blues web site "Weenie Campbell" and discussion list, who have provided a sounding board and feedback for some of the material here. Thanks also go to another good friend, Jonathan, who introduced me to the music of Henry Thomas many years ago, and first got me thinking about making quills.