Saturday, December 19, 2015

In The Beginning Was The Jug- The Jim Kweskin Jug Band

In The Beginning Was The Jug- The Jim Kweskin Jug Band


Who knows how it happened, how the jug bug craze got started in the folk minute of the 1960s, maybe it happened just like in the 1920s and early 1930s when “jug” got a boost by the likes of the Memphis Jug Band, The Mississippi Sheiks, and about twelve other state-named Sheik groupings using home-made weapons, uh, instruments, picked up from here and there, a jug here, a triangle there, fashion a kazoo here, pluck a washtub there and come up with some pretty interesting sounds. Got a boost too when these seemingly amateur productions got a little air time on the local radio a new thing in the firmament, got guys, agents of the million small and medium-sized record companies to buy into their sound and create a niche market, especially down South. The funny thing was these songs were not about love sorrows, man and women sorrows when things went bust or love’s rewards like you would think would sell a ton of records if the singer had some talent but were about stuff like the rent man coming, coming hard with maybe a sheriff behind him, the repo man to take that old Model T away since you “forgot” to make that payment a few months back, and ever since, about the hard, hard life on Penny’s Farm and placed like that and about what is a poor man to do in hard times. Stuff the back country folk and not just them could relate even if it seems far-fetched today that such subject matter could sell record, ah, CD number one.

Yeah, once you listen to the old stuff on YouTube these days you could see where that 1920s material might have been the start of the big first wave. Maybe though this is how it might have played out back in the 1960s somebody, somebody tired unto death of what was on the youth-oriented AM radio stations then and were looking for stuff their parents did not pass on, roots music, a few musicians, got together and figured here was something that folk-crazed kids, a very specific demographic not to be confused with all of the generation of ’68 post-war baby boomers coming of age rock and roll jail break-out age but those who were also sick unto death of the vanilla rock and roll that was being passed out about 1960 or so.

Get this, make of it what you will for anecdotal evidence, music that more than one mother, including my mother, thought was “nice” and that was the kiss of death to that kind of music after the death of classic Elvis/Chuck/Bo/Jerry Lee rock for a while before the Brits, led by Stones and Beatles but a ton of others as well, came over the pond and the acid-eaters like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead headed east in the “Second Coming” so they started tinkering. Maybe, and remember the folk milieu perhaps more widely that the rock milieu was very literate, was very into knowing about roots and genesis and where things fit in (including how they fit in and some to this day have made a living out of those tracings). So somebody in the quickly forming and changing bands looked up some songs in the album archives at the library, or, more likely from what later anecdotal evidence had to say about the matter, found some gem in some record store, maybe a store like Sandy’s over between Harvard and Central Squares or Sam Goody’s down in New York City who had all kinds of eclectic stuff if you had the time and wherewithal to shuffle through the bins. Institutions that sustained many for hours back then in the cusp of the 1960s folk revival when there were record stores on almost every corner in places like Harvard Square and the Village in the East you could find some gems if you searched long enough and maybe found some old moth-eaten three volume set of  Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and came up with The Memphis Jug Band and K.C. Moan or the Sheiks doing Rent Man Blues, maybe Furry Lewis on Kassie Jones (although sometimes the search was barren or, maybe worse, something by Miss Patti Page, Tennessee Ernie Ford, or good god, some country bumpkin George Jones thing stared you in the face). From there they found the Cannon’s Stompers, the Mississippi Sheiks or the Cannon Jug Band, could be the way to prosper by going back to those olden days if they kept the arrangements simple, and that was that.


See, everybody then was looking for roots, American music roots, old country roots, roots of some ancient thoughts of a democratic America before the robber barons and their progeny grabbed everything with every hand. Let’s make it simple, something that was not death-smeared we-are- going-to-die-tomorrow-if- the-Ruskkies-go-over-the-top red scare bomb shelter Cold War night that we were trying to shake and take our chances, stake our lives that there was something better to do that wait for the forlorn end. And that search was no accident, at least from the oral history evidence I have looked at, having grown up with rock and roll and found in that minute that genre wanting.  Some went searching South to the homeland of much roots music, since those who were left behind or decided out of ennui or sloth to stay put kept up the old country British Isles Child ballad stuff (their own oral tradition Saturday night barn dance spin on the stuff not Child’s rarified collection stuff) and found some grizzled old geezers like Buell Kazee, Hobart Smith, Homer Jones, Reverend Jack Robinson and the like, who had made small names for themselves in the 1920s when labels like RCA and Paramount went out looking for talent in the hinterlands.


So there was a history laying there to be exploited, certainly for the individual members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Jim, Geoff Mulduar, Mel Lymon, Maria Muldaur, Fritz Richmond , the most famous and long-lasting of the 1960s jug groupings, all well-versed in many aspects of the American Songbook (hell, I would say so, say they were well-versed, even old tacky Tin Pan Alley Irving Berlin, smooth Cole Porter and the saucy Gershwin Brothers got a hearing), history there for the taking. All they needed was a jug, a good old boy homemade corn liquor jug giving the best sound but maybe some down in the cellar grandpa jug from the old days if that prime item was not available, a found washtub grandma used to use from the old garage, a washboard found  in that same location, a tringle from somewhere, a kazoo from the music store, some fiddle, a guitar, throw in  a tambourine for Maria and so they were off, off to conquer places like Harvard Square, like the Village, like almost any place in the Bay area within  sound of the bay.

And for a while they did, picking up other stuff chimes, more exotic kazoos, harmonicas, what the heck, even up-graded guitars and they made great music, great entertainment music, not heavy with social messages but just evoking those long lost spirits from the 1920s when jug music would sustain a crowd on a Saturday night. Made some stuff up as they went along, or better, made old stuff their own like Washington At Valley Forge, Bumble Bee, Sweet Sue from Paul Whitman and plenty of on the edge Jazz Age stuff that got people moving and forgetting their blues. And here is the beauty of it unlike most of the first wave stuff which was confined to records and radio listening you can see the Kweskin Jug Band live and in action back in the day on YouTube and see the kind of energy which they produced when they were in high form (music that they, Jim and Geoff anyway, still give high energy to when they occasionally appear together in places like Club Passim in Harvard Square these days. Yeah, in the beginning was the jug… 


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