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Survival Equipment

Survival music | Simple instruments for when the power grid goes down

This violin was a vital survival tool during the Great Depression.
Survival music | Simple instruments for when the power grid goes down

What will you do for entertainment on long, dark nights when the power grid is down? Music might be just what is needed.

by Leon Pantenburg

The Great Depression was devastating for farmers in the Midwest. My grandfather, Peter Pantenburg, lost the family farm about 1930, and briefly, the entire family was homeless. What kept them from going on the road ala The Grapes of Wrath was my great-grandfather Charles Hallowell, and his daughter Alice Johnson.

Charles was a fiddler and Alice was a pianist, and together they played any gig they could get. They made enough

My great-grandfather, Charles Hallowell, sometime in the 1940s.

My great-grand father, Charles Hallowell, sometime in the 1940s.

money performing at bars, dances, parties and other social gatherings to keep the entire family together and in Iowa until times got better.

There’s a reason music has always been the center of most social gatherings. I think humans are hardwired to appreciate rhythm, and music evolves naturally out of that. I also believe that music is a natural stress reliever, and that it can have a soothing effect on troubled times. And what church service is complete without music?

Music can invigorate, soothe, inspire and calm. It can be the focal point of a fellowship gathering, and a way of getting people together who otherwise don’t have much in common.

And the point here is: When there is no electricity, what will people do to stay entertained and mentally stimulated? Reading is great, if you have books, but that can be a solitary activity that doesn’t do much for social interaction.

If music is not part of your preparedness plan, give it some thought.

Singing is the probably the easiest music for everyone. And acappella music is wonderful – it is so simple anyone can participate. But sounding good takes some practice and hard work!

The next step could be improvising instruments from common items.

These traditional percussion instruments are essentially free to make, and were mainstays at dances and social events on the frontier.

  • Spoons: Just hold them by the stems so the bowls can strike against each other. Anybody can play the spoons. To be good with them takes some practice, though!
  • Washboard: You’ll need one for washing clothes anyway, and all you need are some thimbles on your fingers to make some sounds. Here’s how to play one.
  • Comb: Put some cellophane or paper over the comb and hum into it, kinda like a kazoo.
  • Washtub bass: You can adapt the standard washtub used for laundry into a pretty decent bass with the right accessories. Here’s how to make one.

Kazoo: If you can hum, you can play a kazoo. They’re great to get beginners started, and for breaking the ice at parties. Don’t pay more than a buck for one.

Harmonica: Long a frontier standard, and a favorite of soldiers, hikers and of anyone who needed a lightweight instrument, a harmonica provides the classic soundtrack for a campfire.

Other instruments can be as eclectic as your musical tastes.

The next step is to form a band. The band can be a polished ensemble, or a group of people who get together to jam. Check out the regional

The Thorn Hollow String Band plays old time music at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.

The Thorn Hollow String Band plays old time music at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. Band members volunteer their time.

preferences of the area you live in. A polka band in the midwest, for example, or a country band in the southeast,  are guaranteed moneymakers. Find people of similar tastes, and get together to play on a regular basis.

Then, start playing gigs. During the Depression, people were broke, but they still packed the bars. Your band, like my great-grandfather’s, could turn out to be quite profitable. It might even provide a livelihood, or way of making extra income when everything else has gone to hell.

Regardless if you’re preparing for the apocalypse, or just want to play for fun, music can be a vital part of your preparedness equipment and skills. And until a disaster happens, you can have a lot of fun practicing!

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View Comments (2)


  1. Leon

    10/20/2015 at 13:16

    I’d like to see some of those flutes, or the YouTube link that tells how to make them. I know a school that could use some cheap instruments.

  2. Grampa

    10/03/2015 at 09:55

    I have found on youtube how to make several types of flute from PVC pipe that are remarkable. I showed one to a music teacher who was also a woodworker and he now has students make their own flutes and play them for the parents. they have been a tremendous hit for the students make the flutes they cost only a few dollars and some have displayed quite a lot of talent. Many students would love to play an instrument but cannot afford them. These flutes give them the pride of ownership of their instrument and provide a drive unseen with many who think they like to play.

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Survival Equipment

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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