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I’ve Got the Neo-Jug Band Blues

1 Feb

Jug Band

Forget, for a minute, all about that olde 1920’s country folk/blues/ragtime stuff. Just imagine: it’s 1963, and radios all around you are blaring “The Sukiyaki Song” and bogue tunes from that shitty Singing Nun film. Yes, it’s grim. And all of a sudden: THE ROOFTOP SINGERS come a-swinging with “Walk Right In”. Now, you might not know this song was originally done in 1930 by Gus Cannon & CANNON’S JUG STOMPERS. And yes, these ROOFIES do sound pretty featherweight. But the tune, the song, the harmonies . . . they hit on a primordial, genealogical-tree nerve buried deep inside you. It gets you wondering: hey, what’s up with this new, jug band revival thing?

Yep, the jug band revival of the late 50’s/early 60’s ain’t the hippest cultural legacy going, but without a doubt it was an exciting, ear-poppin’ musical development for those too luddite for the rockin’ instrumental surf music at the time. It’s proponents certainly cued off the early hijinks of COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH, THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL, THE GRATEFUL DEAD, and even THE 13th FLOOR ELEVATORS. And though I admit alot this stuff gets me thinking about my dad wearing thick, square glasses and a Stanford U. letterman’s jacket, there’s actually many other, really great images this kinda stuff’ll conjure up in craniums that are a little less context-bound. Listen to enough of this stuff, and I guarantee you’ll be fitting a broom-handle and a bass string to a washtub in no time flat.

Jolly Joe’s Jug Band – “Jug in the Shade” (from the Fonotone Records (1956 – 1969) box set, Dust-to-Digital Records, 2005) Was this the first retro jug band to be recorded? If it’s from ’56, it probably was. Jolly Joe Bussard was a teen gtr player/record collector who spent the better part of a couple decades bothering the heck out of nice ol’ country people door to door, on the off chance he might come across some rare-as-hen’s-teeth blues recordings pressed into brittle shelac. His mission was a selfish one, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t all benefited from some of his better finds. He also succeeded in creating a 78-rpm alternate universe via his Fonotone label, wherein he pretended it was 1928 for well over a decade – almost succeeding in stopping time entirely! Get his Fonotone 5-CD box and trip out on how weirdly obsessive American kids used to be.

The Orange Blossom Jug Five – “Salty Dog” (from their Skiffle In Stereo LP on Lyrichord Records, 1960) The other contender for first jug revivalists on the block – this was recorded in ’58. And oh my this is so frickin’ lo-fi, you might start believing them little bones in your middle ear did shatter at your last MOTÖRHEAD gig. Famed-folkie Dave Van Ronk plays on this, but totally renounced it: “it was truly appalling, but we couldn’t stop them from putting it out.” Thank god the finicky opinions of musician-types sometimes get overridden – the jug air is really a-blastin’ on this one.

The True Endeavor Jug Band – “Blues, Just Blues, That’s All” (from The Art of the Jug Band LP, Prestige Records, 1963) Blues historian Samuel Charters called this band his own. Is it as good as other critic-led groups like, say, Lester Bangs’ BIRDLAND? Or R. Meltzer’s VOM? Well, I don’t listen to them bands neither, so I suppose I could get away with saying: yeah! At least no one’s reading bad poetry over the top of this rec. And the cover (see above) gets me wondering how cool it would be to blow a jug on Mars.

The Even Dozen Jug Band – “Take Your Fingers Off It” (from The Even Dozen Jug Band LP, Electra Records, 1964) These guys are the most enthusiastically cornball of the bunch, but I find enthused-corn to be an increasingly useful commodity, the older I get. How else am I gonna irk annoyingly po-faced dipshits when they slink around here? And clearly, corn was a staple food in the diet of all the original, 20’s jug bands as well. Gtr-professor Stefan Grossman played on this when he was still a teenager, and there’s some vague LOVIN’ SPOONFUL connections here I can’t tell you about, as I ain’t from that coast. There’s a cheap CD of this floating around; what’s stopping you?

Dave Van Ronk & the Ragtime Jug Stompers – “Moritat” (from the Dave Van Ronk & the Ragtime Jug Stompers LP, Mercury Records, 1964) Dave Van Ronk eventually put out a jug record he could stand proudly behind, and it’s a good one. Nowhere near as primitive as his first try with THE ORANGE BJ 5, but certainly energetic and bursting with good jugular ideas. Of special note is their jug-led version of Kurt Weil’s “Mack the Knife” – it’ll strip the pants off of NICK CAVE any day of the week. No doubt, a murder ballad like this woulda gone over well someplace like Memphis in 1928, then known as “The Murder Capital of the World”.

Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band – “Blues in the Bottle” (from their See Reverse Side For Title LP, Vanguard Records, 1966) Much more than dollar bin do-wacka-do. This entry’s a bit late in the game, but these folkies was juggin’ it in ’63 too. Jim always surrounded himself with some of the best young ‘uns in the business (Fritz Richmond, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Bill Keith), and his voice could cut straight through any haystack you might think to roll in front of it. Here, he’s reimagining a HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS tune in ways the original never even hinted at. Gotta give this man a hand.

David Lightbourne’s Stop & Listen Boys – “Beat You Plenty” (from their Monkey Junk CD, Upland Records, 1999) Couldn’t end without working in a neareSST relative here somewheres. A quarter century after the rest of this stuff, this S & L BOYS CD was released, produced by one-time SST house philosopher Joe Carducci and engineered by Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton of THE DESCENDENTS/ALL. It’s a great & gruff run through jug & country blues songs that your grandma woulda sang to you, if your dad hadn’t been playing those dang HERB ALPERT recs so loud. This particular cut goes and sticks it’s kazoo right up your wazoo.

Would Greg Ginn ever really have signed anything like this to SST? Well go listen to his new TEXAS CORRUGATORS CD before you ask me that, son.

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Pickin’ My Brains Out

23 Jan

Banjo Boy

I’m ruminating on the BANJO this eve. It’s got a real nice sound, the BANJO does: brittle, metallic, hollow-toned and bone dry. Dry like the way my skin usedta feel after spending too much time playing basketball under the hot SoCal sun, in the face of them nasty Santa Ana winds. You know: face feels tight as a drum, and when you smile, lips crack and ooze a bead of blood. Yep, the BANJO sound has a dry, cracked, blood oozing sound.

BANJOS have always been on the periphery of my vision. One of my first memories is of my dad’s BANJO – one of them 4-string, tenor types – rusting out in our garage. Never heard him play it, but it got me pondering what it might sound like, in the right hands. As a little kid, watching cornball Hee Haw TV reruns – ol’ Roy Clark was always front and center, soloing madly on his trusty BANJO. Yeah all his pickin’ & grinnin’ always got me jumpin’ and stompin’ like a little freakazoid. And of course, there were those adolescent, post-soccer victory lunches at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlour: sharing a pitcher of A&W rootbeer with shin-guarded pals and oogling the guy dressed in cheap, faux-Victorian barrelhouse get-up, as he clawed out Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune BANJO in time with a player-piano. Ya see, I just couldn’t shake the BANJO if I tried.

The following fine tunes are only a tiny sampling of the 1000 or so BANJO tunes you just gotta hear before they lay you to rest down in the churchyard. Feel free to point out your own favorites. I’d love to hear em, especially the way I’m feeling tonight.

OBRAY RAMSAY – “Cold Rain and Snow” (from The Music Never Stopped: The Roots of the Grateful Dead CD on Shanachie Records, 1995): An early 60’s classic from the mountains of North Carolina, some of ya’ll will know this from the myriad of versions THE GRATEFUL DEAD waxed throughout their long career. Obray’s high lonesome croon and 3-finger picking crawls down my collar toward my heart like it must’ve to Jerry Garcia’s once, all them years ago.

CLIVE PALMER & BOB DEVEREUX – “D Tune” (from the Suns & Moons LP on Rainyday Records, 1978) Clive’s best known for his involvement with the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND and the great CLIVE’S ORIGINAL BAND, but he’s done a slew of other worthy banjo recordings which explore the edwardian popular songbook in that intentionally stiff, proper English style of his. Here he offers up a more fluid, circular mode of melodic playing that, when I listen closely, makes the floral-print wallpaper turn into spinning pinwheels before my very eyes.

STEELEYE SPAN – “Blackleg Miner” (from the Hark! The Village Wait LP on Chrysalis Records, 1970) One of the first I ever heard by these Brits, and still among my most favorite. That’s Terry Woods on 5-string banjo – he’d go on to play in THE WOODS BAND and, a decade later, the freakin’ POGUES. What a perfect instrument to ram home the no-retreat union miner strike message laid out here. God I love them harsh downstrokes he punctuates the twangin’ riff with throughout.

JIM KWESKIN – “Blue Skies” (from the Jim Kweskin Lives Again LP on Mountain Road Records, 1978) This old Irving Berlin chestnut never sounded so bittersweet. Recorded around the time of Mel Lyman’s death (following years of protracted sickness), I read this as Jim’s packet of good tidings to his old harmonica player, well-loved friend, and almighty figurehead of the cult to which he belonged. Though I could be wrong. Gonna post long ‘n’ hard about this Kweskin guy, as soon as I can find my kazoo.