By Greg Cahill
“There are at least hundreds, maybe thousands of jug bands out there. It’s amazing. I see them everywhere I go and hear some really good ones,” says guitarist and bandleader Jim Kweskin. “In every town, every village, every city, someone’s got a jug band.
“It’s astounding to me.”
Kweskin, the leader of Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, helped launch the second wave jug-band revival in the 1960s. The band (depicted below) recently completed a national 50th reunion tour that featured original band members Maria Muldaur (vocals), Geoff Muldaur (guitar), and Bill Keith (banjo) as well as Sam Bevan (bass), Richard Greene (fiddle), Cindy Cashdollar (Dobro and steel guitar), and the Barbecue Orchestra.
The landscape is ripe with jug bands with such colorful names as the Juggernaut Jug Band, the Cincinnati Dancing Pigs, and the Smokin’ Fez Monkeys gathering at the annual National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville, Kentucky, and the San Francisco Jug Band, to name a few.
The growing appeal of jug-band music, Kweskin says, is simple. “It’s easy, it’s fun, and you don’t have to be a great musician,” he notes, during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “You can just be someone who loves to play music and who likes to get together with friends who want to thump away on a washtub or blow away on a jug, play a little guitar or a little banjo, or a little fiddle, or sing some blues or some old-time songs.
“If you’re not looking to become a big star and have a fabulous professional band, you don’t have to be that good. Even someone who’s just been playing for a short while can start a band and have a lot of fun with it.”
There are jug-band festivals and competitions, as well as professional associations, all around the country. But if you’re looking to get off of the couch and onto the street corner, Kweskin recommends that you follow these three simple steps:
STEP 1. Listen to a lot of great music.
“The first step to becoming a musician is learning how to listen and knowing what to listen to, and to become passionate about what you’re hearing,” Kweskin says. “You have to learn to absorb great music. If you want to have a jug band then you should listen to some of the great music made by jug bands, so you know what that music is all about. And be sure to listen to western swing—Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, for instance—because that music has a lot in common with jug-band music. Both simply took old country, folk, blues, and pop songs and revived them into new forms.”
STEP 2. Meet people with similar interests.
Go to concerts and try to find people who like the music you like and who may want to play the jug or washtub bass or fiddle or banjo or kazoo. Or who can sing or whatever. “They don’t have to be that good,” Kweskin says, “but the better they are the better the band will be.”
STEP 3. Buy a Jug
Start thumping away on some of those songs you’ve been listening to. Daunted by the prospect of selecting a jug? True, you often see jug-band players blowing on a ceramic crockery jug, the kind that moonshiners use. But, Kweskin, says even an empty one-gallon plastic jug, the kind used for water or milk, is just as good. “It’s not the jug itself that’s important,” Kweskin says, “it’s how well you can play it. As long as it’s got a certain resonance to it that’s all it needs.
STEP 4. Pick Your Songs
Kweskin’s specialty is interpreting such blues, ragtime, old-time songs as “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” and “Eight More Miles to Louisville,” and “Diamond Joe.” Other classic jug-band songs include “KC Moan,” “Jug Band Music,” and “Stealin’.” But, Kweskin says, “You can do almost anything. You can do Leadbelly folk songs, mountain fiddle tunes, traditional blues songs, any song from any part of American music. You can write your own.
“But, for the most part, it’s just roots music. You can just mix it all together and it works.”
Dixieland songs are a hit. Or give the time-tested mountain-fiddle song “Cluck Old Hen” a jug-band treatment. Listen to Holly Golightly & the Brokeoffs’ backwoods spin on this laconic song, from the 2008 album Dirt Don’t Hurt, to get the jug-band revival vibe.
STEP 5. Pick a Colorful Name
Keep it relevant to your own scene, but consider paying homage to the greats with a name that includes “stompers” or “blowers.” And remember that jug-band music is rooted in minstrelsy of the 19th century, but its theatrical side is pure vaudeville. Have fun with it!
Listen to This!
Dig deep into the roots of jug-band music. The three great jug bands of the 1920s and ’30s were the Gus Cannon Jug Stompers; the Memphis Jug Band (depicted below); and the Dixieland Jug Blowers.
Some of the great jug bands of the ’60s include the Jim Kweskin Jug Band; the Even Dozen Jug band (with guitarists Stefan Grossman and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful); and Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers.5 Great Jug-band Albums
The Memphis Jug band with the Gus Cannon Jug Stompers
Earl McDonald and the Great Louisville Jug Bands, 1924-1931
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Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band Greatest Hits
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, the soundtrack to the 2007 film documentary about the history of jug-band music.
Geoff Muldaur & the Texas Sheiks, the self-titled 2009 blues CD.