Way down south, Memphis, Tennessee
Jug band music sounds so sweet to me
‘Cause it sounds so sweet
Ahhh, and it’s hard to beat
Jug band music certainly was a treat to me
There are two direct influences on my life from Jim Kweskin: to this day I have a moustache, and I first grew it in 1964 because Jim Kweskin had one. Also, I found jug band music in my freshman year at a New England university, joined a jug band, stopped attending some of my classes (I was… a business major?) and promptly
When I wrote that second sentence up there, I capitalized the J, B and M, but it’s too funky, too down-home for that, as of course one generally eschews frivolous aggrandizement. How funky was jug band music? Brother or sister, you do not know funky until you’ve heard bass notes made by huffing air across the top of a clay jug. If you were any good at it, you could get anywhere from one to two notes out of that jug. Did I mention bass? It was a stick stuck on an upside-down old-fashioned washtub with a string going from the top of the stick to a bolt screwed into the center of the tub. You get the notes by holding onto the string at the top of the stick and either sliding your hand up and down the stick, or moving the stick back and forth to create different tensions on the string. And you put a brick under the washtub to allow the notes out, and if a brick is part of your kit, friend, you’re playing in a funky outfit.
Back in high school I had been as excited about rock music as anyone else, but I don’t think I thought of learning to play a guitar until I was in college. By the time I got there I was a nascent folkie, which means that I knew and admired Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Yeah, I can now admit that I thought Peter, Paul and Mary were okay; I was indifferent to the venerable Weavers, but at least they were trying, and I knew the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters were crap passing themselves off as folk musicians. I got to college in the fall of 1964, where I met the other folkies and heard those new-to-me recordings of new folk acts like Donovan, Miriam Makeba, Tom Rush, Ian & Sylvia, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste.-Marie and more, and then more.
Like with most musical forms, digressions, diversions and individualities emerged in time. Look at rock, which has splintered into, what? I don’t know, maybe twenty categories? The new interest in folk music also brought to light the originals like Appalachian songstress Jean Ritchie and The Greenbriar Boys. Of course, Woody Guthrie, and after The Weavers there was still Pete Seeger, whose brother Mike was in The New Lost City Ramblers. And all those older black artists, mostly from the south. My God, all of them! Authenticity abounded, in both flavors: Original and Approximated Originality.
So, in folk there were styles and categories. Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were the leaders in the new Protest Music category but there were always other voices (say hello to Richie Havens, Odetta, Eric Andersen, et al), and there were traditionalists like those mentioned above. It was all new to me and I liked them all, I guess, but it wasn’t long after I got there that a guy played a record called “Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band” and I fell in love. Call it old-timey, call it revival, call it uptempo or goodtime music or whatever, but what it was called, was jug band music.
Before I go into some of the history of the form, I want to say that Mr. Kweskin has been influential in my life besides the moustache. That period led me to learn to play guitar which led me to many adventures, and to this day, when I need a lift in spirits, I know I can always count on Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. Despite the unusual instruments, the people in his band all played so damn well, and Geoff Muldaur is still mostly unrecognized as a great singer, and with Kweskin’s singing and ragtime-infused playing, you’ll see why they give me such a lift. And that was also the reaction we got from happy callers when we played them on the late, lamented KFAT. Now I’ll try to convince you that the form is both venerable and respectable, and I’m gonna win on at least one of those.
While some low-revenue people in the early south were making or grabbing whatever made an acceptable sound and jamming their tunes—and blues is directly related here—the first jug bands have been traced to the early 1920’s. The people you may know in the folk iconography, people you might have heard of but had no idea were also associated with jug bands would include Ma Rainey, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie. How about that?
Not impressed? Okay, more recently: Dave Van Ronk had The Even Dozen Jug Band, which included John Sebastian, who left to form The Lovin’ Spoonful- who were all over jug music. Besides John Sebastian, Van Ronk’s jug band also had master musician David Grisman and Maria D’Amato, who left that outfit to join Kweskin’s unit and married Geoff Muldaur. Yes, that’s her singing “Midnight at the Oasis.” Country Joe and the Fish came from The Instant Action Jug Band. Mungo Jerry, who had evolved from an earlier blues group, Good Earth, were in effect a jug band on their first live performances and recordings. Remember “In The Summertime”?
For reasons of graphics, I suppose, some of the most sought-after Fillmore-era posters feature The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, who started out as a jug band. When Jesse Colin Young left his folk career back in New York and moved to Marin and formed The Youngbloods, their first release was a jug band classic. Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan were in Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions before forming The Warlocks, which evolved into The Grateful Dead. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, too. Creedence Clearwater honored the form in their album Willy and the Poor Boys.
In the early 1960’s in England, jug music was showing up as “skiffle” music, best known in this country by Lonnie Donegan’s hit, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)?” Oh, yeah, and there was another skiffle band you might have heard of. Called themselves The Quarrymen, two of whom were John Lennon and Paul McCartney and later, George Harrison.
And if that’s not enough, I saved the best for last. Don’t know if you know who Ed Ward is, but he’s one of the oldest, most widely read and respected rock music writers, and I’m tellin’ you how freakin’ respectable he is because Ed Ward “once listed the most Important bands of the early 1960s as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Byrds and the Jim Kweskin Band.” I’m not sure if I agree with that, but I’m not making this up. And have I mentioned that that was Ed Ward, who (or whom) I’ve read for years and only saw this today? So I was right, right?
Like a lot of forms, jug music might have adjusted and adapted to time, place and available instruments, and mutated and changed into something new, but thankfully it has not. I mean, you wouldn’t play bluegrass on a synthesizer, would you? You could, but… yeah, you shouldn’t. And jug band music needs to be acoustic and it needs to be fun, and that is why I am writing this piece. Jug band music is fun. I found a source that said, “Kweskin is probably best known as a singer and bandleader, but he is also known for his guitar stylings, adapting the ragtime-blues fingerpicking of artists like Blind Boy Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt, while incorporating more sophisticated jazz and blues stylings into the mix.” And it all came out as raucous, head-bopping fun. Y’see?
It has a joyousness that is only equaled in my experience by Klezmer or some Zydeco music. Jug band music always seems to hit the fun notes. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sad note by a jug band. Listen to Kweskin’s version of the blues in “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me.” If you can play this where others will hear it, do it and watch how many people come up and ask what the hell you’re playing, but notice they’ll all be smiling. I almost rest my case.
After I left that school I lost track of my friends in The New Hydraulic Banana Revival Jug Band, and while I was still interested, there wasn’t much in the news about Jim Kweskin or the band until 1971, when Rolling Stone published a feature article on the debacle that had overcome the band. It seems that after I left my jug life behind, Kweskin got a new harmonica player named Mel Lyman, who, according to the article, took over the group, turning it into a cult, and discord and disarray ensued. Rolling Stone called Lyman “The East Coast Charles Manson.” I don’t care. I have “Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band” on an LP, a cassette, a CD, my phone and on my hard drive. If I get down, I always go to Jim. I’ll never forget the first song I heard on their first album:
Some more from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band:
- “My Gal”
- “Somebody Stole My Gal”
- “Jug Band Music”
- “Borneo” (where “even though you’ve got a corneo, you’ll dance to the break of dawneo”)
- If you want 14 ˝ minutes of Kweskin fun that isn’t referenced above (listen for the bass solo in “Coney Island Wash Board”)
- Here’s the Kweskin band reuniting in 2013
How about some history? Here are two of the best known jug bands of their day:
- The Memphis Jug Band with “He’s In the Jailhouse Now” from 1930
- Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers doing the blues classic “Minglewood Blues” from the late ‘20’s
Here’s a modern jug band, and please don’t notice that there is no jug. I had a hard time finding one, so I included this because it’s ragtime as hell, the bass player really rocks it, and the guy on washboard is really good- and that was my axe. He’s great, I was loud:
One last note: This one was in line for sometime soon; I had another essay ready to post, and then I saw that Jim Kweskin is on tour and performing in National City late next month, less than thirty miles from me, and I posted this one so I could send it to him before I try to meet him. I’ll let you know how that goes. Me! I’m gonna meet… Jim Kweskin!
Follow this song and see what a long, strange trip it’s been:
1928: Here’s The Memphis Jug Band doing “On The Road Again”:
1965: And here’s 1:51 of unadulterated raucous rock ‘n’ roll bliss by The Lovin’ Spoonful:
1981: Here’s The Grateful Dead’s take on the song:
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.