AMERICA'S DIY MUSIC -- JUG BAND
Everyone knows the blues because everyone has them. You remember. That soulful suffering, that wanting “to lay down and die,” those moments when “minutes seem like hours and hours seem like days.” The blues rose from the bone-poor Mississippi Delta to conquer the music world. “The blues had a baby,” Muddy Waters sang, “and they named it rock n’ roll.”
But the blues birthed another child, its not-so-evil twin. Where the blues was sinful, this child was sweet. Where the blues was mournful, this child set your feet tapping. This blues child is jug band.
Jug band is America’s Do it Yourself music. The fixin’s of a decent jug band can be found in any hardware store. A washboard (yep, they still make ‘em). A washtub and broom stick. A comb and wax paper (braaaahhh!!) kazoo. Spoons. And of course, an old jug, brown preferably, with the smell of bourbon still on its breath.
The washboard scrapes out the beat. The washtub booms the bass. Spoons click-click along. And the jug? Its sputtering, spluttering sound can only be called music if you’re in the mood. Put them all together and you have music that, while not as celebrated as jazz or blues, is as American as music gets.
Unlike the blues, now played on pricey guitars by millionaires with British accents, jug band never lost its roots. And its roots run to the days when music sprang from the souls of black folk who decided not to lay down and die.
Early in the twentieth century, blacks began fleeing the starvation plantations of the Mississippi Delta. That flat, sizzling land had meant nothing but sorrow since the days of slavery. Why not head north, to “the warmth of other suns?” Thousands rode Highway 61 to Chicago. Others went to Detroit, New York, Philly. . . But many, wary of the cold, settled for Memphis or Louisville. There they got some hardware, mixed their Delta blues with ragtime and. . .
Details of the birth are murky. Jug bands were heard on Beale Street in the early 1900s. A jug band played at the Kentucky Derby in 1903. And by 1920, jug bands were making records. The Memphis Jug Band. The Old Southern Jug Band. Gus Cannon and His Jug Stompers.
The songs were the flipside of sorrow. “Rag Mama.” “Whoa Mule.” “Bottle it up and Go.” “Tear it Down, Bed Slats and All.” And then, although the music did not resemble 12-bar blues, jug bands honored their roots in a mess o’ songs. “Coal Oil Blues.” “Lumpy Man Blues.” “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me.”
The original blues, when played by a master such as Son House or Robert Johnson, dives into despair. With a “hellhound on your tail,” when “dark was the night, cold was the ground,” you may not smile for days on end. But listen to jug band and try not to smile.
The blues survived into the 1950s when it birthed its rockin’ child. But jug band died out when the good times stopped rolling. Then in the 1960s, a bunch of sassy college students, who had no right to be bluesy, revived the music.
New York had its Even Dozen Jug Band. Cambridge, MA spawned Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. And drunken parties held anywhere near a garage had their own offshoots, spontaneous if not always tuneful. Jug bands enlivened the dark wordiness of the Newport Folk Festival and the music never went electric. A few jug band veterans — John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur, Jerry Garcia — flavored their careers with occasional jug spirit. Then the music again took a back seat to its evil twin.
Yet fun never goes out of style, and jug band never died. The Roots Revival of the 1990s captured a new generation, and today, there are more jug bands than ever. Pittsburgh has the Steel City Jug Slammers, Cincinnati its Dancing Pigs. One band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has even recorded! And then, of course, there are the Wahoo Skiffle Crazies, the Genuine Jug Band, the Juggernaut Jug Band. . . Minneapolis and Chicago each host a Battle of the Jug Bands, and every September, the National Jug Band Jubilee puts dozens of sputtering jugs onstage in Louisville.
Unlike the blues, chronicled in dozens of books and films, jug band keeps a low profile. But the music keeps on stompin’, for reasons explained by John Sebastian.
So if you ever get sickly, tell Sis to run quickly
To the dusty closet shelf
And pull down a washboard and play a guitar chord
And do a little do it yourself.
Then call on your neighbors to put down their labors
And come and play the hardware in time
Cuz the doctor said, “Give him jug band music
It seem to make him feel just fine.