This video from December 4, 1928 shows a young African American (likely identified as “CoCoMo” Joe Barthelemy) playing a homemade drum kit consisting of a wooden box, tin cans and cake tin cymbals. As he plays, two other boys dance. This type of homemade instrument was a part of the New Orleans “spasm band” tradition, which began in the late 1900’s on the streets of the city, playing a variety of Dixieland, skiffle, jug music and other forms of early jazz forerunners.
Usually the term “spasm” was applied to bands, often made up of children, which crafted their instruments out of cast-off items and junk. Drum kits made out of wooden boxes and tin cans, cymbals made from pie plates, horns made from old pipes and parts of other instruments, and of course guitars and fiddles made from cigar boxes and other items. These spasm bands were not just one of the forerunners of what we know as jazz… they are also a key part of the history of homemade musical instruments.
Click the image below to visit the University of South Carolina page where you can watch the full video, which is itself a series of excerpts from a longer film.