Phi-Mu Washboard Band takes listeners back

By Chris Gross

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Courtesy blog.wfmu.org

Courtesy blog.wfmu.org

In 1952, a group of young ladies from the Phi Mu Sorority’s Alpha Alpha chapter got the idea to raise money for a new sorority house by starting a band. Technique and experience weren’t a priority for the group, as plenty of the members took up playing instruments such as the rack, a bucket, sticks and a washboard . According to a note written by one of their ukulele players, Lynne Akin, the newly formed “Phi Mu Washboard Band” would go on to play television, banquets, conventions and benefits. A testament to their popularity, Akin writes, “One of our most memorable trips was one made to Trion, Ga. We all piled into the Bookstore Bus, went to Trion and played for 450 men.” When the band separated and the girls moved on, they left behind something absolutely wonderful – their record, “…Just Because.”

The record surfaced in 2003 when blogger Bob Purse posted the song “Love Hurts” from the album on a blog/obscure music collecting project called 365 Days. Interest began to grow, and by 2008, Purse released the entirety of the record online at WFMU’s “Beware of the Blog.” Plenty of outsider music enthusiasts would finally be able to listen to “…Just Because,” and to it’s credit, the record contains some of the most honest and genuinely sweet recordings out there.

There’s no way ignore the sense of excitement these girls have for getting the chance to record. Feelings of sincerity echo from the singers’ mouths as they perform a mixture of covers and home-grown tunes. The album opens with the title song “Just Because,” serving as a terrific introduction the spirit of the band and the album itself. The girls make a plea in wonderfully off-key harmonies to the listener about forgiving their ridiculousness by remembering how awesome it is that they are playing in a washboard band. It’s hard not to want to support them; the amount of unbridled energy and jubilance they sing with is nothing short of admirable.

A cover of Boudleaux Bryan’s “Love Hurts” is one of the most striking and notable songs on the album, with the singers harmonizing oh-so-sweetly. It’s hard not to feel a little bashful. The girls sound so endearing and honest that they break your heart when they sing lines like “it takes a lot of pain.” Even though the song is a cover, Phi Mu completely owns the words. When they say that love hurts, there is no way they don’t mean it.

Though still important to the album, the next few songs are less notable. “Seven Daffodils” has a Vashti Bunyan quality to it, and there’s a cover of “When the Saints Go Marching In” some might find interesting. Hecky Krasnow and William Lovelock’s “Chilly Winds” is sung wonderfully and is another highlight. The song is sung by only one singer and once again sincerity permeates through the recording. Every word sung is either breathtaking or heartbreaking. Other covers such as “Mama Don’t Allow,” “You are My Sunshine,” and “This Land is Your Land” could certainly stand out to folks who want to hear something familiar. The covers serve as a reminder that this band isn’t trying to do anything except sing songs as sincerely as they can.

The album’s peak moment might be “I Can Smile,” which is actually a brief cover of Paul Evan’s “Happy Go Lucky Me” – some might remember for its use in John Water’s “Pecker.” There’s a distinct quality to the song; it’s sung by a lone singer accompanied by only a ukulele. The song increases in pace as it goes on and each time she sings the line, “Oooh oooh happy go lucky me,” it sounds like she’s losing it, struggling to get through the verse with a breath left in her body. The passion and drive that went into recording this one song for her must have been punishing, and it matches the subject matter perfectly. As a lone singer, she is able to connect with the audience more personally, and because the lyrics are so easily digestible and sung so passionately, “I Can Smile” is about more than just the song itself; it’s about the performance.

The album closes with “Phi Mu Suwannee,” a well-earned cheer for their sorority. The girls made this record out of the love for their sisterhood and it shows. The songs never feel like they’ve been forced at all. The prospects of fame and fortune seem so far away from this record, putting their desire to sing wonderful songs and have fun into the spotlight. Do yourself a favor and head over to the WFMU blog and take a listen to some of the tracks at http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/05/the-phi-mu-wash.html. You can always grab the album too; you really won’t regret it.

Chris Gross can be reached at [email protected]