Friday, December 07, 2012

Beedle-ee-bum: 8more miles to the Louisville Jug Bands

[For Barney Beal.]
After long listening on blues, there eased up on me a slightly sorcerous curiosity about some of the places the music found on its way. On or off the beaten track as one would construe it is Louisville. Thoughts on which I share with you here.  Not too widely known is it that it was a hot bed once of Jug Band music. There is hardly a music that surreally sounds more like the lost track of a silent movie. Which offers strains of swirling basic American tributaries. Few musics more so that for the cost of closing your eyes can take you back in time.

While New Orleans, Chicago and Memphis were the milestone towns on the rivers of jazz, blues and rock n roll, there were others, Louisville among them. On the Ohio River in the 1920s, it was for a time the center of the Jug Band music sound.

Minstrel shows and string bands roamed the nation in the 19th century, sometimes selling magical elixirs and snake oil. This was songster music, predating the appearance of blues. The string bands set the stage for jazz, which became a more accomplished form.  In the 20th century, string bands began to swing through the south in zephyrs and wind sprites called jug bands.

This was a music of poor people, at least compared to the more trained and proper bands of this or any day. It was marked, or course, by the proletarian earthy incessant and (for the player) mind blowing jug, taking the place of the bass fiddle or tuba. But it was also noted for penny whistles, harmonicas, kazoos, washboards, as well as mandolins, fiddles and guitars. As such it has an element of kid’s fun about it, a bit of the Silly Symphony.  A bit out of tune, the beat often rushed. What the heck!

While Jug Band music is about blues, it is, in Louisville as it comes down to us via old 78 RPM recordings, a bit less about blues and more about a poor man’s jazz. Using what you got – having a good time. Crazy rhythms.

The Louisville jug bands would change personnel and names but revolve around a few figures. None well known. They were John Byrd, Jimmy Blythe, Clifford Hayes, Earl McDondald. The Dixieland Jug Blowers, The Old Southern Jug Band, Whistlers Jug Band. Imagine them strolling through town.

I am talking evocation, baby. There is film footage (now on YouTube) (and below) of this last named  band in action, top-hatted, blowing jugs, making a natural ruckus I tell you. You can imagine the train entering town, gum papers flying, and passengers parting with some money for these minstrels of strange syncopation. Whistlers and some of these are represented in this collection.

Here also are a couple of tunes from Cincinnati and Memphis. In the hands of Gus Cannon and the Mississippi Sheiks as well as Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, the music got a bit more bluesy, and further known. 78 RPM record collectors of the 1950s scarfed up this stuff, and it was heard far a field: in the village by the Rooftop Singers, in Fort Hill in Boston by Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band and in Minneapolis by college student for a week Bob Dylan. [Full disclosure: My friend Sunnyland Slim met the Memphis Jug Band in Memphis on Beale St, in Crump Park, and at the Peabody Hotel (where they were recording).]

Included in the collection is “Bandjorino’. For many years WGBH DJ Ray Smith would outro his show with this mildly crazed song - it is something of the 1812 Overture of the Jug Band Era. Like Fletcher Henderson’s Queer Notion, it evokes, marked by me as the movement of trains and automobiles pushing aside mules and riverboats in a tipsy dream. With that we bid adieu. As Ray would say: “Thanks for joining me in my musical evocation of a bye-gone time. It’s all a part of the Jazz Decades.” –Jack Vaughan, 2012

Mog users can hear this music (Louisville, Cincinnati, and Memphis), Go to Then click on "Play all tracks" to play.  

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