23 January 2014


The links between the early 'jug bands' and traditional jazz are much stronger than you may think. Their repertoires and playing styles overlapped, as did their instrumentation. Also the jug bands tended to play tunes based on simple, familiar chord sequences - just the sort of thing that appeals to many traditional jazz musicians.

Andon't be put off by the thought of 'jugs'. You may be picturing someone trying to make 'music' by blowing into a jug and producing a sound like a constipated tuba. But in fact jug bands comprised various mixtures of fine musicians playing guitars, banjos, mandolins, violins, pianos - in fact all manner of instruments (yes, often including a jug). There could be anything from two to eight players in the band.

It's called a 'Jug Band' but there's only one jug.
These bands flourished in the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially in the regions of Memphis and Chicago.

In recent years, they have had a big influence on the young generation of busking traditional jazz players and string bands in the streets of New Orleans; and there are also numerous modern jug bands playing material taken from the 1920s.

Think for example of the following tunes in the repertoire of the great young jazz band, Tuba Skinny. They were all learned from the records made by The Memphis Jug Band:
I'll See You In The Spring
Papa's Got Your Bathwater On
Fourth Street Mess Around
Come Along Little Children
Bumble Bee
Ambulance Man
Care to try one? Listen to a performance of I'll See You in the Spring by Tuba Skinny. You can see them play it in Ab (a wee bit low for Erika's voice) if you CLICK ON HERE.
In later performances, they switched to Bb. In this version, the words are helpfully very clear: Click on here.
And for a recent relaxed al fresco performance:
Compare it with The Memphis Jug Band's original by clicking here.

But who exactly were The Memphis Jug Band? Like many of today's young street bands, they did not have a fixed personnel. The driving force was Will Shade (also known as Son Brimmer or Sun Brimmer): he was a singer who played guitar and harmonica. He composed several of the band's songs. From 1926, he convened the band and managed such gigs as they attracted. He drew on a pool of fourteen musicians who could play banjo, guitar, mandolin, washboard, kazoo, violin, jug, drums and piano. They included Vol Stevens, Charlie Nickerson and Ben Ramey. Four lady singers (notably Hattie Hart and Memphis Minnie) also appeared at various times on the recordings. They played blues, ballads, novelty humorous numbers and pop songs of the day. They produced a distinctive, addictive sound, partly because the jug and kazoo respectively performed the roles of trombone and trumpet in a traditional jazz band. They are believed to have made almost 100 recordings (some of which you can find on YouTube). The band also occasionally recorded under different names (such as The Memphis Sheiks, The Carolina Peanut Boys and The Dallas Jug Band).

Overlapping other local jug bands at this time were The South Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band.

The Memphis Jug Band went on, widening its styles and membership, over many years; but it is the early recordings that have most influenced traditional jazz today. Of course, the band's legacy to pop and rock music has been even greater.

Among its repertoire, let me recommend these (all of which I believe you can find on YouTube). Note that many of its tunes were 12-bar blues.

On The Road Again
Cocaine Habit Blues
Stealin' Stealin' (a 32-bar  a  -  a  -  b  -  a)
Round and Round (great fun)
Kansas City Blues
Move That Thing (rather like It's Tight Like That)
He's in the Jailhouse Now (series of verses about criminals who have been punished, each followed by the 'He's in the Jailhouse Now' 16-bar chorus)
K.C. Moan (a very simple blues, but in 16 bars)
Papa's Got Your Bathwater On (sung as a duet, and with lyrics alleged to refer to an ancient voodoo practice)
Gator Wobble (standard 12-bar)
I'll See You In The Spring (mentioned above - a lovely 8+8 bar sung structure, using the Magnolia Chord Sequence, with a curious 14-bar instrumental intermezzo [faithfully retained in the Tuba Skinny version] between the vocals)
She Done Sold It Out (standard 12-bar)
Fourth Street Mess Around (great sung number, 16+16 bar structure; with an amusing Coda)
Bumble Bee (archetypical 12-bar country blues. Singing by Memphis Minnie makes it something special)
Ambulance Man (another 12-bar duet)
I'm Looking For The Bully of the Town (Despite its off-putting title, this up-tempo song from 1927 is surprisingly catchy.)