Washboard Bill was born in Dupont, Florida on July 4, 1905. He was known as a percussionist, rooted in the minstrel tradition, as well as a captivating storyteller. During much of Cooke’s childhood, his mother operated a juke joint in Dupont. The young Cooke would secretly stay up past his bedtime listening to the music emanating from his mother’s establishment. These experiences shaped Cooke’s interest in music, and greatly influenced his rhythmic style later on in life.
At age six, Cooke began working for a local sawmill, making 25 cents per day, after his mother fell on hard financial times. In 1916, Mrs. Cooke closed her juke joint, and sent her children to live on their grandfather’s farm in Sanford, Florida. As times grew tougher and the Great Depression set in, Cooke grew weary of his life on the farm, and decided to leave home. For ten years, he led the life of a hobo, traveling by train all over the East Coast.
Although Cooke spent the majority of his younger years traveling outside of Florida, he still maintained a connection with the state, generally spending his winters in West Palm Beach. Between 1947 and 1963, he performed with a group called the West Palm Beach Washboard Band. They played in venues everywhere from the streets to the estates of the Rockefellers and Kennedys. In 1956, he recorded Washboard Country Band with Sonny Terry and folk legend Pete Seeger. Cooke moved to West Palm Beach permanently in 1973. He performed in Florida and throughout the country until his death in 2003. For his musical and historical contributions, Cooke received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1992.
In 1988, Cooke recited a personal narrative, A Hobo’s Birthday, for the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Project, conducted by the Florida Folklife Program. Cooke’s story offers a fascinating account of life as a hobo during the Great Depression. His travels and experiences give the listener a vivid portrayal of transient life on the railroad tracks, and of the character Washboard Bill.
Podcast: A Hobo’s Birthday by William “Washboard Bill” Cooke
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