It’s been nearly 55 years since two of the folk revival’s best guitarists, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, first played together. Now they’ve reunited on Penny’s Farm, a collection of American roots classics. Not long after that early 1963 encounter in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the two became colleagues in one of the most successful traditional and old-time music groups of the era, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. Other members would include Fritz Richmond (jug); Bob Siggins, Mel Lyman, and Bill Keith (banjo); Bruno Wolf (harmonica); Maria D’Amato (later Maria Muldaur, vocals), and Richard Greene (fiddle).
Before the ’60s ran their course, the Jug Band had, too. Geoff and Maria Muldaur recorded a couple of significant albums before going their separate ways; Kweskin took a hiatus from music for several years before resuming his recording and performing career as a solo artist and collaborator. Muldaur took his own sabbatical in the mid-1980s and has since released several remarkable albums, including The Secret Handshake, Password, and the ambitious Private Astronomy—A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke with his orchestral Futuristic Ensemble.
Fritz Richmond’s death in 2005 inspired several tribute concerts—and almost simultaneously, documentary filmmaker Todd Kwait started making Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, a history of jug-band music—leading Kweskin and Muldaur to reestablish their musical partnership in earnest. They created a repertoire to perform as a duo and Kweskin was a featured guest on 2009’s Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks, which also included fiddler Suzy Thompson, slide and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, guitarist Stephen Bruton, and others. More recently, in 2013, Kweskin and Muldaur joined forces for a year-long, 50th anniversary Jug Band-reunion tour that culminated in a series of shows in their old stomping grounds around New York City.
Now, they’ve released Penny’s Farm, a collection of 15 American roots songs, most of which the celebrated musicians learned decades ago from the Holy Grail of the 1960s folk revivals, The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways), and the Library of Congress field recordings of Alan Lomax, as well as recordings from the 1920s and ’30s by Mississippi John Hurt, George Lewis, Frank Stokes, and Dan Sane of the Beale Street Sheiks, and Milton Brown. They also cover “Gwabi Gwabi” by Zimbabwean legend George Sibanda, and “Tennessee Blues” by the late Louisiana singer-songwriter Bobby Charles, Muldaur’s bandmate in Paul Butterfield’s Better Days.
In separate, back-to-back phone conversations from their homes in Southern California, Kweskin, 76, and Muldaur, 73, talked about the essence of their musical relationship and the origins of Penny’s Farm.
What led you to record a duo album after all these years?
Kweskin During the memorials for Fritz and the concerts to promote the new documentary, Geoff and I enjoyed our musical partnership so much again that we just decided to work up some songs and really do a serious duo act—not that I like the word act. So we spent close to six months making arrangements to songs, some that we had done before, which we were redoing and revising, and a bunch of songs that we had never played before. We worked up about 20 songs, enough for two sets in a club, and ended up putting 15 songs on this new CD.
Muldaur I wanted to do this because we worked these tunes up in a duet fashion that was pretty special, and I wanted to put that in stone. Some of these arrangements of traditional material are unlike any others, and I think they’re damned good. So I was saying, we’ve got to put these on an album so we’ll know what we did in the last few years.
‘First of all, strictly on the level of the sound of us, we’re very different—he’s a blues singer, I am not. I’m much more of a jazz, ragtime, three-finger-picking Piedmont-sound kind of person.’
The instrumentation is pretty straightforward—guitars, banjo, some fiddle, and some slide and steel—but the arrangements are fairly complex.
Muldaur That’s always been my thing. It was my thing in the Jug Band, and I’ve always taken to it. I’ve been around for a while, and I know when something’s special. I’ve played with a lot of folks, and I’ve heard a lot of folks, and Kweskin has this special thing on guitar. Although he wasn’t active when he could have become a guitar hero, he is. He can really pick, and he’s come up with some great parts and backups for my songs. Then I find my little stuff behind some of his tunes, where he’s been doing them for years, but I Muldaurize them a little bit. When Jimmy does “The Cuckoo” or “99-Year Blues,” I take extra pleasure in finding these little things that distinguish it—I-wonder-what-it-would-sound-like-if-I-did-this kind of stuff.
Kweskin Geoff, a lot more than me, is an arranger, and a lot of the things, going all the way back to the days of the Jug Band. If you listen carefully, you’ll realize there’s a lot of arranging going on, even though, if you don’t listen carefully, it just sounds like we’re having a great time. With something like Milton Brown’s “My Mary” on this album, that was something we worked up and spent a lot of time arranging. And then we were fortunate enough to get Cindy and Suzy to play, and they just fit right in. The combination of our arrangement and their spectacular playing just makes it sound so good.
Muldaur One of the things that makes these things special is having Suzy and Cindy there. To me, for the funky stuff we do, there’s nobody better than Suzy. I’ve never run into another fiddler who can get that Mississippi Sheiks kind of thing. And Cindy, forget it. It’s over. She’s so damned talented.
How did you come across these songs back in the day?
Kweskin When I was really young, as early as five, six, seven years old, my father had a collection of old 78s. It wasn’t a huge collection, maybe only a couple of hundred records, but amongst them was a couple of Bessie Smiths and a couple of Leadbellys and a couple of Jelly Roll Mortons and a couple of Bix Beiderbeckes and a couple of Louis Armstrongs, Sidney Bechet, and all that wonderful traditional jazz from New Orleans and Chicago. Fats Waller. I just fell in love with that music at a very, very young age. . . . I was a freshman in college in 1958, and shortly after that, maybe ’59, I discovered, through friends, the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, and it was an eye opener. It was the first time I heard Uncle Dave Macon or the original Carter Family or Clarence Ashley or Henry Thomas or any of these other great traditional American folk artists who I have come to worship and to love and learn a lot about and listen to pretty much everything they ever recorded. Shortly after that, I discovered Jimmy Rodgers and on and on, and my musical listening library just expanded exponentially from there.
Muldaur To be specific, “Sweet to Mama,” for instance, came from friends of mine having it on an acetate [disc]. You used to be able to go to this place [a record store] in New York City, Jacob Schneider’s, and he had this huge collection of 78s, and he’d put an acetate together of things you wanted. “Downtown Blues” was on a vinyl album called King of the Blues, which, in Cambridge, next to the Harry Smith Anthology, was probably the next holy book.
Your musical relationship goes back more than 50 years. What is the key to the chemistry between you two?
Muldaur In the case of the Jug Band, you can’t put a group like that together, it just happened. The fact that so many people went on to establish incredible careers—Bill Keith going on to do what he did, and Maria going on to what she did, and Richard Greene—when you think about it, is actually quite amazing. But it was Jim who put the band together, and I think the thing Jim wanted from me was the voice. I was the guy in town with the most distinctive sort of blues sound for him. I don’t think Jim knew about my jazz background till we got rolling, and then there was my propensity to arrange. I think he was just looking for a funky blues singer, but then we’d start talking about doing a Fats Waller tune, and that was something I grew up on, so I could bring that world to it, too.
Kweskin First of all, strictly on the level of the sound of us, we’re very different—he’s a blues singer, I am not. I’m much more of a jazz, ragtime, three-finger-picking Piedmont-sound kind of person—Mississippi John Hurt and those kinds of artists that had more of a ragtime swing to them, and I expanded that into other material, but all with that same feel to it. That’s the kind of music I sing. My signature songs are things like “Rag Mama” and “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” and “Papa’s on the Housetop” and stuff like that. Whereas Geoff, his signature songs are things like “The Wild Ox Moan” and “Chevrolet” and “Trouble Soon be Over.” He’s a blues singer.
Back in 1963, somebody was putting on a concert, it might have been Manny Greenhill, with the two of us on the bill. They called it the Bittersweet Blues of Geoff Muldaur and the Good Time Music of Jim Kweskin. We each did our own set, and then we combined to do a couple of songs together. Within less than a year, I had a request to make an album from Maynard Solomon of Vanguard Records. He had seen me do a jam session at Club 47 in Cambridge. I said, give me three or four months to put together a band. I had the contract before I had the band. The first person I asked was Fritz, because we needed a jug and washtub bass, but almost immediately at the same time I thought of Geoff. He was the best blues singer I knew in the Cambridge-Boston area.
One of the most notable qualities of the new album is that even while the playing is so precise, the feel is entirely relaxed.
Muldaur You just got Jimmy Kweskin to a T. When he plays guitar, he looks like he’s eating spaghetti. His shoulders are relaxed, they’re back, his posture is good, his arms are relaxed. I only use the guitar because I need something to back up my singing, especially when I go solo. I have little arrangements that make life a little interesting, but I’m not a guitar picker. Jim plays every day. He can’t go through a day without picking up a guitar. He’s meant to play the guitar. That feeling, especially on my things like “Sweet to Mama,” that kind of backing picking is just so relaxed. If somebody else did it, it would not feel that way.
Music is magic, you know. You can line up thousands of people to play the same notes, and they won’t make you feel the same way. When we were young guys coming up, and Jimmy and I have talked about this, we don’t think there were a hundred people in the United States, white people, who played country blues on the guitar. Six in New York, three in Ann Arbor, that kind of thing. And when you think of what’s happened since, how many people play guitar and how many of them are technically fantastic, but then, does it have that feeling that you cannot put your finger on? Tight and relaxed, you said it.
Kweskin The kind of music I’ve always loved the most I call “loose but tight.” The perfect example would be Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. That band is so tight, the arrangements and the performances and the musicianship are just exquisite and outstanding, but at the same time they’re just having fun, and they sound like they’re having fun. And they’re so loose, they make it feel like they’re just having a real good time. And that’s what I’m always hoping our music sounds like. But it’s hard to get there. In order to sound like it’s easy, you’ve got to put in a lot of hours, because it isn’t easy. But you want to make it feel like it’s easy, and that’s what Geoff and I have done. We’ve gotten to the point where you can tell from the arrangements that we put a lot of time into it, but you can also tell we’re having a damned good time doing it. AG
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.