Play the washtub?
Why, yes. Why not? That is what Peter Upton of Silver Creek does.
And that is what he did in Haines Junction on the morning of December’s full moon.
That day, Upton and Bob Hayes, another Junction musician, entertained a small sea of wiggling feet and starry eyes at a Jamberries Concert.
Jamberries is a preschool music, art, and literacy program co-ordinated by Haines Junction Public Library and JAM — Junction Arts and Music (formerly the Society for Education and Culture.)
Jamberries promises ‘wiggly-jiggly rock ‘n berry fun!’
So at story time, 20 preschool children and a dozen parents converge on the town’s bright and cozy public library.
No one appears to care that cold winds flap the flags as the December sun struggles to climb the mountains behind the town.
Moms and dads arrive with their babies and toddlers anyway; one mom carries her year-old twins, one under each arm.
Traditionally, some tiny tots like to avoid the washtub.
But when it plays bass for such songs as, The Wheels on the Bus, and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, that’s different.
And it’s cool when you get to clap and sing and slap your knees while the washtub plucks out the rhythm for, When You’re Happy and You Know It.
Oh, life is good.
Upton on bass, and Hayes on guitar and mandolin, sing and play children’s songs for a half hour.
The two versatile musicians appear to be at ease with it all, and they both explain to the preschoolers what they are doing.
The duo calls themselves Left; Hayes draws the children’s attention to the fact that they both play their instruments left-handed.
As Hayes tunes his mandolin, he explains that a small instrument requires more frequent tuning than a larger one like his big guitar.
And before he sings a song about an imaginary journey, he asks the children relevant questions, such as, “What is imagination?”
That elicits an immediate response from little Eric Morin. “It’s something you make up in your head,” says the articulate four-year-old.
Upton alternates between playing his washtub and a regular standup bass.
In kid language, he describes the anatomy and principle of the washtub bass.
“The pole is made from a birch tree; the string is the kind of cord that starts a power saw, he says. “No other cord will work as well.”
“You tighten and loosen the string by moving the pole, and that makes the different deep sounds in the tub.
“See, I put a piece of wood under one edge of the tub so the sound can come out,” he tells the children.
Hayes, a bluegrass vocalist, leads the children through their songs with his ‘just-for-children’ soft timbre.
“The kids were really quite attentive,” says Hayes. “And a half hour was just the right length.”
Upton prefers jazz and rock n’ roll, but says he was quite looking forward to playing for Jamberries.
“Children are such a forgiving audience,” he says.
“And they get excited.”
At the concert the delighted little mass of children do their best to sing and keep time; (they do a good job). A few shyly venture out to dance.
Others sit mesmerized.
The warm, little-people scene — the twin baby girls, a few Santa Claus hats, three tiny sisters in matching pink coats — could melt the snow banks that rim the parking lot outside.
The ambience exudes soft excitement.
After the concert, the children use willows and cord to craft a one-string instrument they could pluck, as Upton does the washtub.
And they decorate them.
Following each monthly concert, Marty Ritchie and librarian, Marguerite Richard, lead the preschoolers in fashioning a music related craft.
(Prior to the concert, Ritchie and Richard have spent much time organizing and designing Jamberries’ craft sessions.)
“Jamberries purpose is to promote literacy and the arts through music and other performing arts, says Yolande Cherepak, JAM’s executive director.
“And it works to provide a venue for local musicians and business partnerships; we want to include the school’s music students as well,” she says.
Several businesses and families have offered donations. Each concert is sponsored by one of those partners.
“And partnering with the Haines Junction Library’s Friday morning story time is a perfect fit,” adds Cherepak.
“It provides the venue and matches our literacy goals, too.”
Cherepak offers an example of how the community’s children were involved in the grassroots of Jamberries.
“Myra Egli of Egli Design suggested children’s drawings when she designed our poster,” she says.
“So our kindergarten teacher, Jill Piercy, helped her students create music-themed drawings, some of which were incorporated into our advertising.”
Upton sees Jamberries as a huge benefit to the children and the community.
“I wish I had had a good music program as a child,” he says. “I got turned off, and grew up thinking I had no music.
“Bob Hayes has been my guru the last few years, for sure,” he adds.
“Bob taught me how to play the upright bass. It’s different from the washtub. Now I have to learn to play, change chords and all,” says Upton.
“My washtub is still my favourite. That’s all I played until four years ago.”
Will Haines Junction tots be asking Santa for a washtub under the tree?
Then they could sing, We Ain’t Got No Washtub Blues.
Just a thought.
The next Jamberries concert, featuring Chloe Godson on percussion, is scheduled for 10 a.m. January 9 at the Haines Junction Public Library.
Elaine Hurlburt is a writer
based in Haines Junction.