Everybody knows these days how changes in taste and technology can ravage whole styles of popular music. But the same forces can also give obscure antiques a fresh sheen and unprecedented vitality. The new anthology The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues makes a superb case that a once high-flying and then long-buried African-American folk invention should enjoy happy times again.
The term most often used to describe jug bands is do-it-yourself, because they were close-to-no-budget ensembles. Though actual brass horns and fiddles were sometimes in the mix, most jug ensembles were trios with guitar or banjo (which could be made from a pie plate or gourd), harmonica or kazoo (the most rudimentary instruments for creating the sound of a lead horn), and the namesake jug, played by blowing or purring across the top (adepts could get multiple tones or even trombone-like vocal effects). As Rough Guide compiler Neil Record says in his liner notes, jug band tunes were originally called spasms, which is perhaps a more evocative and encompassing term than blues. Though Jug Band Spasms might be kind of an alienating title.
The first jug band recordings were made in the 1920s in Louisville, and evince a slightly tonier and tamer intonation than the raw winners who emerged in Memphis to dominate the form by the end of the decade. Like New Orleans, another world-changing cauldron of culture, Memphis has its own version of English, sense of time and timing, and unmatched passion for party music. The Rough Guide makes that passion an organizing principle. Compilations can work like museums, emphasizing pristine preservation rather than antic entertainment. But jug bands cry out for the latter moods, and The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues delivers.
Although instrumentals like “Beale Street Breakdown” by Jed Davenport and His Beale Street Jug Band will get anything with a mobile carcass wiggling, the surprise power of jug bands stems from the jokes they get away with thanks to their underground status — guffaws with claws, outcasts telling you what’s what in amusing codes. The glowering tragedies of Delta blues would dominate later revivals, but it’s no accident that the most successful jug rebirth of the 1960s, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, were clever at being crazy. Likewise, Jug Band Blues features numerous wacky wonders. Despite the suggestive title, “Giving It Away” by Birmingham Jug Band makes so many persons-as-poultry references it seems set in a surrealist barnyard — Maggie’s Farm, maybe? The purest incarnation of the wild-and-crazy spirit may be Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band. In their “It’s Tight Like That,” the crackling scat-and-jug duets show how much precision is required to conjure mania.
The Rough Guide to Jug Band Blues has sections of songs devoted to sex (opening with the deranged and salacious “What’s That Tastes Like Gravy” by King David’s Jug Band, which uses the even-more-growly stovepipe in place of a jug), where you can imbibe hooch (not in the store where you bought it, according to Bill Johnson’s Louisiana Jug Band’s “Don’t Drink It in Here”), and food (though “Red Ripe Tomatoes” are something of a cover story for the threatening blues of Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band). Oddly, the most famous jug band of all, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, are represented only with a fine but obscure number, “Going to Germany,” and the group that appears on the album’s cover, a Louisville outfit called the Ballard Chefs Jug Band, does not play on the album (though they do provide an aptly eccentric photo portrait).
Helps that the party sass of these jug stomps is no longer muffled by the years of wear and tear. Hard to get into the carefree spirit when you have to listen past surface noise, pops, and clicks on old reissues. Modern-tech cleaning and buffing reveal wild dreams as new as everyone had forgotten they were supposed to be. Jug Band Blues will make you smile and shake your head — certainly the intention of the original performances. When you’ve grown to treasure your copy of this anthology, take a do-it-yourself approach: With a marker, cross out Blues on the cover and write in Spasms.