Full of surprises, this lively anthology explores a sometimes under-appreciated genre of early-recorded blues, highlighting its creative diversity.
For anyone who caught the initial installment of PBS’s highly regarded three-part documentary series on the recording artists of the 1920s, American Epic, that just completed its first run, The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues is a fortuitously-timed release. A significant portion of that first episode -- “The Big Bang” -- focused upon Will Shade and his Memphis Jug Band, crediting the raucous sound and bawdy, irreverent lyrics of their many iterations and fellow jug band originators as the foundational block of R&B (with a direct lineage to contemporary rap and hip-hop).
Traceable to African-American “spasm bands” of the 1890s, jug bands were the original DIY music makers, often featuring an array of handmade instruments and simple objects put to musical use. At the center, of course, was the stoneware jug, whose user could generate a surprising variety of sounds emulating everything from a bass drum to a saxophone. Spoons, a washboard, or even stomping feet could supply additional percussion, while well-worn or homemade stringed instruments provided the melodies (often in conjunction with a kazoo or harmonica). The jug bands were formed to entertain well-lubricated audiences in generally urban areas across the South, with Memphis acknowledged as the style’s point of origin. Jug band music’s popularity peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s when America’s major record companies sent their talent scouts (along with their portable recording machines) into the rural and urban South.
In gathering the 25 tracks on The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues, series producer Phil Stanton and compiler Neil Record have created another definitive one-stop retrospective of an important genre of early recorded music. Like others in the Rough Guide series, this disc offers listeners new to the form a deep and highly pleasurable introduction. For those already familiar with many of the performers here, the remastering offers new clarity and balance to these old songs. For instance, there is little of the vocal distortion or clipping that often troubles early recording reproductions. Individual instrumentation and character is brought to the fore throughout the disc and amplifies the quality of the many players.