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Who were the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Cannon's Jug Stompers, and the Mississippi Sheiks? Only some of the most popular and delightful groups of pre-Depression America.
by Alan Greenberg
Somewhere along the line, most likely in Louisville, Kentucky, around 1905, an inspired and indubitably drunken instrumentalist raised a just-emptied jug to his lips and, picking up the beat of the string band he was accompanying, started blowing like crazy. The deep belly of resonance he created was simultaneously dramatic, comedic, and danceable. Thus from festive early-century string bands emerged newfangled jug bands.
By the late 1920s, the new sounds of innovative jug bands dominated the American pop-music scene on such fronts as Birmingham, Alabama; Cincinnati; and Brooklyn, New York. The green fields of Flatbush produced the Five Harmaniacs, an eccentric quartet led by Sid "Red" Newman on banjo and harmonica that was among the first acts using a jug ever recorded. And although the four members of the Five Harmaniacs were white vaudevillians from New York and North Carolina, the group's bluesy flavor and appeal caused their recordings to be listed in the "race market" section of record-company catalogs.
It wasn't long before the jug novelty had significantly infiltrated the jazz- and country-music scenes. The Prairie Ramblers were a white string ensemble that featured future country luminaries Karl, Harty, and Red Foley; they used an earthen jug to produce bouncing bass rhythms. Ezra Buzzington's Rustic Revelers stylized a cornpone synthesis of jazz and country with their strings, clarinet, and jug in pop recordings such as "Little Brown Jug." Kentuckian Earl McDonald's Louisville Jug Band became renowned for its performances at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week, a spotlight gig that became a tradition for more than half a century.
In 1913, McDonald hired a teenager named Clifford Hayes to play fiddle with his band. Within a year the Louisville Jug Band was finding steady starring engagements in New York City that led to a successful two-year stand in Chicago. After McDonald caught his brilliant young protégé pocketing play-date cash to subsidize his lavish love life, Hayes started his own group rather than re-form. The men reunited, however, as part of the Dixieland Jug Blowers supergroup, which was assembled for two extraordinary studio recording sessions in 1926 and '27. "Love Blues," "Hey! I Am Blue," and "Everybody Wants My Tootelum" are remarkable for their aural and historical impact, elegance, and graceful sense of swing. Indeed, they anticipated developments for decades ahead.
While the stylish ensemble was dazzling at 78 rpm, its sophisticated repertoire did not resemble the street and club bands then drawing overflow crowds. In Tennessee, Will Shade's legendary, down-and-dirty Memphis Jug Band emphatically did capture the energy of a performing group. Inspired by the success of Earl McDonald and Clifford Hayes, Shade got his act together in Memphis's Handy Park, the meeting place for local blues and string band musicians that was not unlike an unending, open-air party.
Traveling medicine shows heavily influenced the Memphis Jug Band. The group initially employed comedian Charlie Polk as its long-standing jug blower. Superior musicians Furry Lewis (a great bluesman in his own right), Will Weldon, Tee Wee Blackman, Charlie Burse, Ben Ramey, Vol Stevens, and Jab Jones rounded out the outfit. The Memphis Jug Band's rich lode of tunes included "The Old Folks Started It," "Beale Street Mess Around," and "Stealin' Stealin'," the last lovingly covered by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on Shady Grove. With the possible exception of Tampa Red's jug and "hokum" bands and Bo Carter's exceedingly popular Mississippi Sheiks, the Memphis Jug Band was closely rivaled primarily by Cannon's Jug Stompers, whose signature hit "Minglewood Blues" also found contemporary renewal with Garcia as the Grateful Dead's "New, New Minglewood Blues."
Another outstanding product of Handy Park (where he learned to simultaneously play a paraffin jug hooked to a wire rack and a banjo), Gus Cannon's band released such memorable jug hits as "Walk Right In," "Going to Germany," "Bring It with You When You Come," "Mule Get Up in the Alley," and "Viola Lee Blues." The group's brilliantly creative, imbalanced harmonica wizard, Noah Lewis, established (with contemporaries Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson the shamanic paradigm for latter-day razor's-edge blues artists along the lines of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain.
For a fine introduction to classic jug-band music in all its varied styles and guises, as well as a comprehensive journey across the zany American jugscape, try volumes 1 and 2 of Yazoo's Ruckus Juice & Chittlins. But before spinning these discs, do heed jug man extraordinaire Cannon's immortal warning: "Everybody's talkin' 'bout a new way of walkin' / Do you want to lose your mind?"