Story and Photo by Stefanie Jackson – Newman Baker, an international musician and the man behind the Washboard XT project, recently visited the Eastern Shore to research his ancestry and share his talent for playing the washboard.
Baker has traveled the world, playing in bands as a drummer, but he never played the washboard until age 69 when he was asked at the last minute to fill in for a member of another band.
“I sat down, put the spent shotgun shells on my fingers … placed on my lap the washboard … and started moving my hands,” Baker said.
“It wasn’t me making this good music, the ancestors were showing how to play.”
One of those ancestors was the Rev. T. Nelson Baker, of Eastville, who lived from 1860 to 1941.
The elder Baker and his mother were slaves on a plantation in Seaview until he was 5 years old. He worked on farms in Eastville until age 21, then he went back to school.
He eventually attended Yale University, and he was the first African American in the nation to receive a doctorate degree in philosophy.
Newman Baker’s family on his father’s side lived on the Eastern Shore since the 1750s.
During his trip to the Shore from June 25 to June 29, Baker planned to visit historic Eastville, the Samuel Outlaw Blacksmith Museum, and the Eastern Shore Public Library, home of the Francis Bibbins Latimer special collection.
On June 26, Baker stopped by Occohannock Elementary School to visit the Boys & Girls Club and play the washboard for its young members.
Baker plays the washboard in a style different from zydeco musicians in New Orleans. They hold the washboard upright and play it with spoons or with thimbles on their fingers.
Baker lays the washboard on his lap and wears shotgun shells on his fingers – 12-gauge fit him best, he says.
He recalled again the first time he played the washboard and didn’t know what to do, so he played it like the instrument he knew best – the drum.
“All of a sudden, I saw my hands doing things that I don’t know how they knew how to do,” he said.
It was that feeling of his ancestors working through him, showing him how to play the washboard, that inspired him to learn more about his grandfather.
Baker also enjoyed seeing “people smiling and happy because they liked the sound of the washboard.”
Now Baker has his own project, Washboard XT, that allows him to share both his fascination with history and passion for music.
He told the children, “I want to inspire you to keep going and to follow your own dreams, just like the drum was able to take me … all around the world … your dreams can take you places, too.”