I was preparing to take out the recycle bin when this “dead soldier” caught my eye. The bottle is an empty jug of spiced rum that powered my don’t drink and then drive fruitcake. Momentarily I was transported to my early days. I took the cap off and began blowing an accompaniment to Washington at Valley Forge, a perennial favorite of 1960’s jug bands.
So if I could see you now, I’d see questioning faces, incomprehension, and a bit of”what the hell is he going on about now? Jug bands?” for those of you without doctorates in American folk music, the jug band was a phenomenon of the American south in the ’20s and ’30s. The primarily African-American groups played jazz, blues, and ragtime music. Among the music’s key elements were the unique instuments used. It couldn’t be a jug band if there weren’t a player on the jug; the bigger and more profound the sound as it got blown, the better. Other instruments could include:
- the spoons,
- the washtub bass. You made the bass from a galvanized washtub, pole, thin rope,
- Finally, it could include whatever else musicians could improvise to play music with.
As both a type of music and an orchestral form (snicker), the jug band came back in the ’60s. Many folk musicians toyed with membership in a jug band, but only one or two groups succeeded in making it work. It was a sort of unicorn – unique and seldom seen as a form. But it has a kind of landmark status among us survivors of the folk music revival of the 1960s.
And yes, I did belong for about a month to one of those unfortunate groups seeking to explore the outer limits of folk music. But I didn’t play the jug. The jug player had to get the proper plosive eruptions from the instrument. Since the jug player needed a lot of wind and the cheeks to shape the blow into the jug, it was a strangely maximal instrument to play. So instead, I played guitar and kazoo. The great Louie Lefkowitz played harmonica, and the rest of the group was picked up for whatever gig we had to play.
This band was not exactly a huge success. At the base level, most jug bands followed closely in the footsteps laid down by the best-known group – the Kweskin Jug Band. So with similar material, we were not the most inflammable act trying to blaze a path to fame in Greenwich Village. I can’t even remember the name of our group.
But there I was at six in the AM blowing on the jug, stomping my foot, wearing my fuzzy LL Bean winter PJ’s. If the neighbors saw me, it only confirmed what they already knew – whacko, pure 1960’s whacko.