Early jug bands in this country were usually formed by African American vaudeville and medicine show musicians, beginning in the 1920s. They played a mix of traditional and home-made instruments—ordinary objects adapted or modified for the making of sound, like the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe and kazoo.
Beginning in the urban south early in the last century, these bands played a mixture of Memphis blues (even before it was formally called the blues), ragtime and jazz. The informal and energetic music of the jug bands also contributed to the development of rock and roll.
The well known Memphis jug bands were small street groups, performing mainly on Beale Street, and had their own blues style—using guitar, harmonica, banjo and a jug to accompany their blues and dance songs. Then, with the Great Depression, jug bands mostly disappeared.
They made a resurgence in the late 1950s as part of the folk music revival in Greenwich Village. One of the first recordings of the folk era jug band revival was by The Orange Blossom Jug Five, made in 1958. It was also the first recording by folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and featured Sam Charters, author of The Country Blues, and his wife Ann as well as Len Kunstadt, co-owner of the Spivey Records label.
Van Ronk would revisit the genre in 1964 with the album Dave Van Ronk and the Ragtime Jug Stompers, a modern classic, though his ragtime guitar picking and repertoire influenced many subsequent jug bands.
This brief flurry of interest in the genre sparked the formation of a few jug bands that reached national prominence. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band of Cambridge, Mass., which recorded for the Vanguard label, featured the washtub bass and jug player Fritz Richmond, who later played jug on Warren Zevon's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.
The New York-based Even Dozen Jug Band was the Elektra label's answer to the Kweskin band and featured (among others) Maria D'Amato, Joshua Rifkin, David Grisman, Stefan Grossman, John Sebastian and Steve Katz. Maria D'Amato then joined The Jim Kweskin Jug Band, later marrying guitarist Geoff Muldaur. She became, of course, Maria Muldaur.
The musicians playing in jug music revival groups went on to form other bands. John Sebastian founded the pop music group, The Lovin' Spoonful, and later continued as a successful solo artist. Country Joe and the Fish came from The Instant Action Jug Band.
One of the jug bands, formed in the spring of 1965, was the Dirdy Birdies Jug Band. The group was formed on the campus of Montclair State College in New Jersey and have been playing ever since at venues like Gerde's Folk City, The Bitter End, The Village Barn, The Red Garter and The Cafe Wha?
Last night, The Dirdy Birdies Jug Band played the old Gaslight in Greenwich Village on a double bill with Peter Stampfel. Four of the jug band’s original members played in a concert organized by Bob Porco, grandson of Mike Porco, owner of the original Gerdes Folk City. Each month Bob is bringing back vintage 60s acts that once played in his grandfather’s famous folk club.
It was clear the jug band members are still having a great time after nearly 50 years. Mixing traditional jug band sounds and instruments, with ragtime, bluegrass, gospel, country, blues and rock 'n roll, they played good time music that was fun to hear. Nothing heavy mind you, but fun songs like “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” and the “Ballad of Amelia Earhart.”
After a too quick set, the jug band gave way to another Village legend, Peter Stampfel. In the early 1960s, Stampfel and Steve Weber made up The Holy Modal Rounders. For a time the band also featured playwright and actor, Sam Shepard.
The Rounders' first album, The Holy Modal Rounders, was released in 1964, and their version of Hesitation Blues featured the first use of the term "psychedelic" in popular music. Shortly after their second album in 1965, The Holy Modal Rounders 2, they joined Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg in The Fugs for a short time.
A Rounder’s song is found on the soundtrack for the film, Easy Rider. Stampfel is said to be the only person ever to play music with Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, Mississippi John Hurt and Buckminster Fuller—not, of course, at the same time. Last night, however, Stampfel played with Zoë, his 26-year-old daughter, and some members of his latest band, The Ether Frolic Mob.
Where the jug bands leaves off, Stampfel begins. He and Zoë performed some songs from their new CD, Ass in the Air. To say Stampfel has a unique take on the world is a major understatement.
The liner notes are hilarious explanations from some of his absurd lyrics. One song is called Drink America. Stampfel wrote “Fred Koller intended this to be a jingle/song for Miller High Life, which is based in Milwaukee. The idiots could have had an iconic song. The fools, the utterly witless fools.”
Or Take Me Away, which is described as a “song inspired at an AA meeting when this guy was going on about the serious bad shit happening to him in the last few days and then said: ‘Take me away!’ On went the light bulb over my head,” Stampfel wrote. Other terrific songs were Eat That Roadkill, which was “killed by a car,” and Hanging Out in a Bar.
Ironically, it was in this same room, more than 50 years earlier, that Stampfel played with a very young Bob Dylan and Jim Kweskin, who formed his own very famous jug band.
In an interview with Perfect Sound Forever magazine, Stampfel recalled those days with Dylan: “I was 22 and he was 20. It was a real lesson. When you're in your early 20's, you think you're hot shit and that younger people can't show you anything. It taught me that having that attitude towards younger people is really stupid. I went to him afterwards and met him,” he said.
“(Dylan and I) started hanging out together and he was crashing at different places all the time. He came and stayed with us for a while. We played together for a while. I started playing really good then because he was playing SO FUCKING SOLID. Suddenly, I was playing better. We both played at the Gaslight Cafe with Jim Kweskin. I joined him on fiddle and kazoo,” Stampfel said.
So at this historic concert series at the Gaslight, the world comes full circle. Even if you missed the glory days in the 1960s, you can still revisit the past and the get benefit of age at the same time. It's a concert series for anyone who wishes they could relive the past.
Peter Stampfel and Bob Porco