A jug band is a band employing a jug player and a mix of traditional and home-made instruments. These home-made instruments are ordinary objects adapted to or modified for making of sound, like the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe and comb & tissue paper (kazoo). The term jug band is loosely used in referring to ensembles that also incorporate home-made instruments but that are more accurately called skiffle bands, spasm bands or juke (or jook) bands (see juke joint) because they are missing the required jug player.
In the early days of jug band music, guitar and mandolins were sometimes made from the necks of discarded guitars fastened to large gourds. The gourds were flattened on one side, with a sound-hole cut into the flat side, before drying. Banjos were sometimes made from a discarded guitar neck and a metal pie plate.
The eponymous jug is made by taking a jug (usually made of glass or stoneware) and buzzing the lips into its mouth from about an inch away. As with brass instruments, changes in pitch are controlled by altering lip tension, and an accomplished jug player could have a two octave range. The stovepipe (usually a section of tin pipe, 3" or 4" in diameter) is played in much the same manner, with the pipe rather than the jug being the resonating chamber. There is some similarity to the didgeridoo, but there is no contact between the stovepipe and the player's lips. Some jug and stovepipe players utilize throat vocalization along with lip buzzing, as with the didgeridoo.
Early jug bands were typically made up of African American vaudeville and medicine show musicians. Beginning in the urban south, they played a mixture of Memphis blues (even before it was formally called the blues), ragtime, and jazz music. The history of jug bands is related to the development of the blues. The informal and energetic music of the jug bands also contributed to the development of rock and roll.
The Memphis area jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band recorded the great songs that became the basis for the later jug band revival: "Stealin'", "Jug Band Music", "Whoa, Mule", "Minglewood Blues", "Walk Right In" and many others.
Other Memphis area bands were Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band, and Noah Lewis's Jug Band. Ma Rainey's tub-jug band featured the first recordings of slide guitar performer Tampa Red, who later formed his own Hokum Jug Band. Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie cut a few sides each backed up by their own jug bands; Memphis Minnie also sang and played with the Memphis Jug Band.
The 1930s depression and the devastating effect of radio on record sales reduced the output of jug band music to a trickle. The last sides by Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band were from 1930 and 1934 respectively. Cannon and Will Shade were recorded again in 1956 by Sam Charters on a field trip for Folkways Records. The sound of the washboard and tub bass, however, lasted well into the 1940s as an integral part of the "Bluebird beat" in Chicago. Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die", recorded in Chicago in 1940, is driven by a syncopated washboard backup.
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band of Boston, who 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 (Muldaur), Joshua Rifkin, David Grisman, Stefan Grossman, and John Sebastian. D'Amato then moved to the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and married guitarist Geoff Muldaur. The Austin, Texas band The 13th Floor Elevators formed as an electric jug band, featuring Tommy Hall as electric jug player. A similar revival began in the UK in the 1960s possibly as an offshoot of the USA revival. A number of jug bands appeared there in the late 60s in addition to the skiffle bands including the Anglo-American Ffilharmonious Jug Band.
The musicians playing in jug music revival groups went on to form other bands. John Sebastian founded the pop music group The Lovin' Spoonful. Country Joe and the Fish came from The Instant Action Jug Band. Mungo Jerry, who had evolved from an earlier blues group Good Earth, were in effect a jug band on their first live performances and recordings, thanks to their use of jug (played by the group's banjo player Paul King, who left in 1972), and washboard, contributed by regular 'extra member' Joe Rush. Another group with jug band roots was the Grateful Dead: key personnel were together in Mother Mcree's Uptown Jug Champions before forming the Warlocks, which evolved into the Dead. A self-titled CD of Mother McCree's jug band music was released in 1999.
Pop-rock tributes to jug band music include "Willie and the Poor Boys" by Creedence Clearwater Revival and "Jug Band Music" by The Lovin' Spoonful. The 'Spoonful also mined the old songs: for instance, "Younger Girl" uses the melody of Gus Cannon's "Prison Wall Blues". Cannon's "Walk Right In" was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in the 1960s.
The success of "Walk Right In" brought Cannon himself back into the Stax Records studios in Memphis for his last recording, in 1963 at age 79. The album, called Walk Right In, features Cannon on banjo and old friends Will Shade on jug and Milton Roby on washboard. The album consists of a run through of a baker's dozen of his old hits with Cannon interjecting comments and telling stories about the songs.
The children's Christmas special, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, based on a book written by Lillian Hoban and Russell Hoban, features a jug band composed of woodland-creature Muppets and a soundtrack composed by Paul Williams. The show first aired in 1977.
Jug bands have continued to exist and evolve to the present day. John Sebastian still leads the J-Band, which included not only musicians from the modern folk revival such as the late Fritz Richmond from the Kweskin band, but also the late Yank Rachell, mandolin player and jug band leader from the original era. Some bands remain faithful to the original roots, while others continually expand the jug band repertoire to include other folk music, popular music, jazz and classical music forms, such as The Juggernaut Jug Band of Louisville Kentucky (formed in the late 1960s and possibly the only full-time jug band in existence at this time), the Cincinnati Dancing Pigs (who also have been together for 40 years), hhe Carolina Chocolate Drops (an African American jug band that also plays old-time African American fiddle tunes), The Hobo Gobbelins, The Kitchen Syncopators and the Inkwell Rhythm Makers. The Connecticut-based Jugadelics continue the traditions of the genre as they employ both homemade and traditional instruments while infusing their own original material in the jug band style. The Tennessee-based Jake Leg Stompers continue the traditional Memphis style. The South Austin Jug Band is a young Austin Texas group that plays newer variations on traditional music but does not include a jug player and is not related to the earlier Austin Jug Band which featured vocalists Danny Barton and Galen Barber.
There has been an Annual Battle of the Jug Bands in Minneapolis, Minnesota held since 1980. Over 20 jugbands compete for the "Coveted Holliwood Waffle Iron" trophy, including the Jook Savages, a jugband that predates Kweskin's band and is still together. The competition is held the Sunday after the Super Bowl.
The annual San Francisco Jug Band Festival is held in San Francisco, California each August and there is a JugFest gathering of jug bands each September in Sutter Creek, California. Both of these free, outdoor, festivals feature a wide variety of jug bands in an all-day format that gives each band plenty of time to stretch out and play a full set. An annual Jug Band Jubilee was launched in Louisville, Kentucky, the probable birthplace of jug band music, in October 2006.
A documentary by Todd Kwait about the history and influence of jug band music, Chasin' Gus' Ghost, first screened at the 2007 San Francisco Jug Band Festival The film features numerous well-known musicians in interviews and performances, including John Sebastian, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, David Grisman, Fritz Richmond, Maria Muldaur, and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, as well as Taj Mahal as the voice of Gus Cannon. Many of these musicians performed at a sold-out concert at the San Francisco Jug Band Festival. Chasin' Gus' Chost will have its film festival premiere in October 2007 at the Woodstock Film Festival
The 1990s and first decade of the 2000s saw another generation of jug band revival, which might be termed post-modern jug band movement. These bands range from traditionalists (covering 1920s and 1930s jazz and blues) to modernists and post-modernists (creating new music from jug band instrumentation and aesthetics). A scene of this nature has developed in New York City, centering on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn.
The grandpappies of the so-called re-revival was Washboard Jungle, which started out playing a folk repertoire, but eventually included electronic samplers, household appliances, and inane stage antics. Driven by a punk-influenced washboard, they created an original sound in the spirit of jug, while referring to a broad swath of modern pop culture.
Current jug bands include the 12th Street Stompers, Bill Carney's Jug Addicts and The No Good Redwood Ramblers, who enjoy devoted followings with a more traditional approach.
The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, which makes musical instruments from vegetables, is similar to a jug band.