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.
For the uninitiated, Jug band music can be an acquired taste, and a lot of it can overwhelm a listener if digested within a small space of time; it's fortunate, then, that Record’s sequencing flows in a way to build and accentuate moods, while his expert curation demonstrates the genre’s breadth. More than just a novelty, jug band music embraced a wide palette of contemporary musical forms, all of which are on display here. For instance, Memphis Minnie and Her Jug Band echo delta blues, while Bob Coleman’s Cincinnati Jug Band offers a ragtime approach. One hears the influence of string band jazz in the Old Southern Jug Band, whereas Minnie Wallace’s contribution applies the jug band treatment to the commercial jazz market. Likewise, the commingling of country music (with Jimmie Rodgers yodeling alongside the Louisiana Jug Band) stands out; meanwhile, the Prairie Ramblers’ “Jug Band Rag” employs elements of western swing, with a riff from “Turkey in the Straw” embedded within the performance.
The collection also highlights the amazing variety of sounds that players were able to coax from their simple glass or stoneware jugs. Often times, the jug fulfilled the role of the bass drum or guitar, providing the rhythmic base around which the rest of the band built their sound. The tuba-like bleat of the jug in Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ “Goin’ to Germany” fulfills a similar background role. Some of the most exciting and surprising performers bring the jug to the fore as a lead instrument to convey a range of sounds. Take Tampa Red’s exquisite guitar picking, which is accompanied by trombone-like jug playing in his Hokum Band’s performance of “It’s Tight Like That”. Elsewhere, the jug player for King David’s Jug Band sounds like he’s playing a saxophone on “What’s That Tastes Like Gravy”.
Mixing well-known jug band classics, like Memphis Jug Bands’ “Stealing, Stealing” or Memphis Sheiks’ “He’s in the Jailhouse Now”, with lesser-known but equally worthy tracks, such as the already-mentioned “What’s That Tastes Like Gravy” and Jed Davenport and His Beale Street Jug Bands’ “Beale Street Breakdown”, The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues is a definitive anthology of this often under-appreciated genre and a necessary purchase for anyone interested in exploring old-time American music.