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Jug band

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A jug band is a band employing a jug player and a mix of traditonal and home-made instruments. These home-made instruments are ordinary objects adapted to or modified for the making of sound, like the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe and comb & tissue paper (kazoo). Though a true jug band must have a jug player, some people casually use the term jug band when referring to skiffle bands, spasm bands and juke (or jook) bands (see juke joint), which are other kinds of ensembles that incorporate a random mix of traditional and home-made instruments.

Instruments are often improvised, and in the early days of jug band music, guitar and mandolins were sometimes made from the necks of discarded guitars fastened to large gourds. The gourds were flattened on one side, with a sound-hole cut into the flat side, before drying. Banjos were sometimes made from a discarded guitar neck and a metal pie plate.

The eponymous jug is just that: a jug (usually made of glass or stoneware) played by buzzing the lips into the mouth of the jug , from about an inch away. As with brass instruments, changes in pitch are controlled by altering lip tension, and an accomplished jug player could have a two octave range. The stovepipe (usually a section of tin pipe, 3" or 4" in diameter) is played in much the same manner, with the pipe rather than the jug being the resonating chamber. There is some similarity to the didgeridoo, but there is no contact between the stovepipe and the player's lips.

Early jug bands were typically made up of African American vaudeville and medicine show musicians. Beginning in the urban south, they played a mixture of Memphis blues (even before it was formally called the blues), ragtime, and Appalachian music.

It has been said that "The history of jug bands is the story of the birth of the blues". W.C. Handy said that he learned blues style from street musicians, playing improvised instruments. The informal and energetic music of the jug bands also contributed to the development of rock and roll.

Original Jug Bands

The first jug bands to record were the Louisville and Birmingham jug bands. These bands played popular dance band jazz, using the jug as a novelty element. Vaudeville-blues singer Sara Martin and America's blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers both employed these groups on their recordings.

The Memphis area jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band,recorded the great songs that became the basis for the later jug band revival: Stealin', Jug Band Music, Whoa, Mule, Minglewood Blues, Walk Right In and many others. Other notable Memphis area bands were Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band, and Noah Lewis's Jug Band. "Ma" Rainey's tub-jug band featured the first recordings of slide guitar genius Tampa Red, who later formed his own Hokum Jug Band. Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie cut a few sides each backed up by their own jug bands; Memphis Minnie also sang and played with the Memphis Jug Band.

The hard times of the 30's depression and the devastating effect of radio on record sales reduced the output of jug band music to a trickle; the last sides by Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band were from 1930 and 1934 respectively, although Cannon and Will Shade were recorded again in 1956 by Sam Charters on a field trip for Folkways Records. The sound of the washboard and tub bass, however, lasted well into the 40's as an integral part of the "Bluebird beat" in Chicago. 'Bukka' White's "Fixin' to Die", recorded in Chicago in 1940, is driven by a powerfully syncopated washboard backup.

The Jug Band Revival

One of the first recordings of the 'folk era' jug band revival was by The Orange Blossom Jug Five, made in 1958 for the poorly-distributed Lyrichord label,"Skiffle in Stereo". It was also the first recording by New York folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and featured Sam Charters, author of 'The Country Blues',and his wife Ann as well as Lee Kunstadt, co-owner of the Spivey record label. Another excellent, but hard-to-find early recording group was Jolly Joe's Jug Band, led by record collector extraordinaire Joe Bussard, and released on his own Fonotone label-as 78 rpm records! Eventually these were collected on LP by the Piedmont label.

The most successful revival band was The Jim Kweskin Jug Band of Boston, who recorded for the Vanguard label. The band featured the magnificent washtub bass and jug player, Fritz Richmond. The New York based Even Dozen Jug Band was the Elektra label's answer to the Kweskin band and featured (among others) Maria D'Amato (Maria Muldaur), Joshua Rifkin, David Grisman, Stefan Grossman, and John Sebastian. Unfortunately they recorded only one LP. D'Amato then moved to the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and married guitarist Geoff Muldaur. Sebastian eventually founded the pop music group The Lovin' Spoonful,

Pop-rock tributes to jug band music include "Willie and the Poor Boys" by Creedence Clearwater Revival and "Jug Band Music" by The Lovin' Spoonful. The 'Spoonful also mined the old songs: for instance, A Younger Girl uses the melody of Gus Cannon's Prison Wall Blues. Country Joe and the Fish came from The Instant Action Jug Band. Mungo Jerry, who had evolved from an earlier blues group Good Earth, were in effect a jug band on their first live performances and recordings, thanks to their use of jug (played by the group's banjo player Paul King, who left in 1972), and washboard, contributed by regular 'extra member' Joe Rush. Fritz Richmond played jug on Warren Zevon's "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead".

The well-known children's Christmas special, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, based on a book written by Lillian Hoban and Russell Hoban, features a jug band comprised of woodland-creature Muppets and a soundtrack composed by Paul Williams. The show first aired in 1977 and is still a seasonal favorite.

Jug bands have continued to exist and evolve to the present day. John Sebastian still leads the J-Band, which included not only musicians from the modern folk revival such as the late Fritz Richmond from the Kweskin band, but also Yank Rachell, mandolin player and jug band leader from the original era. Some bands remain faithful to the original roots, while others continually expand the jug band repertoire to include other folk music, popular music, and classical music forms. A popular young string band in Austin, Texas calls itself 'The South Austin Jug Band' though it has never had a jug player in its lineup. It is not related to the earlier Austin Jug Band which featured virtuoso jug player Jack Otis Moore.

There has been an Annual Battle of the Jug Bands in Minneapolis, Minnesota held since 1980. Over 20 jugbands compete for the "Coveted Holliwood Waffle Iron" trophy, including the Jook Savages, a jugband that predates Kweskin's band and is still together. The competition is held the Sunday after the SuperBowl.

An annual JugFest gathering of jug bands is held each October in Sutter Creek, California, and a Jug Band Jubilee is planned for Louisville, Kentucky, the probable birthplace of jug band music, in October 2006.

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