The first in a planned series of reports on the fascinating variety of traditional music that can be found around the world. We start the series in the United States with an article about jug band music and the human capacity to make music from an object one might find mundane.
As the leader of San Diego’s G Burns Jug Band, two questions follow me around every show we play: “Who is G Burns?” and “What is a jug band?” I’m saving the answer to the first question for another time, but let’s talk about what a jug band is. Style aside, jug bands are defined by their use of a ceramic jug as a bass instrument. Technically, the jug is a wind instrument because the players buzz their lips and blow into the jug, using it as a resonator. By adjusting their embouchure, or the tenseness of their lips, the players create a musical tone resembling an upright bass being bowed with a weedwacker.
Some of the earliest accounts we have of jug blowing in America trace to the turn of the 20th century around Louisville, Kentucky. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Kentucky, after all, is the storied land of bourbon and moonshine. It was inevitable that someone would come up with something funny to do with all of the byproducts once emptied. The instrument was most popular in African American string bands, where it was combined with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and fiddles, and even clarinets, saxophones, cornets, and tubas.
The first bands to record jug blowing in the mid 1920s were also rooted in Louisville. Bandleaders Earl McDonald and Clifford Hayes formed numerous bands which included the jug, and sought to emulate the hot jazz coming out of New Orleans and Chicago. Though their names are not well remembered now, they worked with legends like Johnny Dodds, the New Orleans clarinettist who also worked with a young Louis Armstrong. Listen to Earl McDonald’s composition “Banjoreno,” performed by his Dixieland Jug Blowers, for a beloved example of this exuberant, wonderfully strange music.
Recordings of the Louisville bands caught on among black musicians across the South, who applied jug playing to other styles of music. The bands of Memphis and Birmingham, for example, drew on the rowdier sounds and instrumentation of country blues, itinerant songsters, and minstrel shows rather than more modern and urban jazz sounds of Louisville and New Orleans. The sound could be jubilant, like The Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown,” but it could also be tender and moving, like the remarkable “Cold Iron Bed” by Jack Kelley and his South Memphis Jug Band. The jug even found its way into church, with “sanctified jug bands” cutting records like “Thou Carest Lord” sung by the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers.
When you collect all of these examples, the idea of a “jug band” or “jug band music” becomes hard to define stylistically. They just don’t fall easily into the categories of American roots music we’re most familiar with. Their music spans nearly the entire gamut of black music-making in the early 20th century, and yet their place in American music history often seems marginal. In the grand narrative of jazz, Louisville jug bands seem like a strange cul-de-sac on the roads connecting New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Meanwhile, the grand narratives of blues music have valorized rural soloists of the acoustic age like Robert Johnson, and electrified urban bandleaders like Muddy Waters. In between them, the acoustic urban jug bands, with their bluesy fiddle or bluesy mandolin just don’t seem to fit.
So, to return to that original question: what is a jug band? Trying to define it in terms of musical style might be futile. My favorite answer (though maybe not always the best answer) comes from the last of the black jug band musicians of Louisville, Henry Miles, who said, “You can have a symphony orchestra. If you got a jug player in that band, that’s a jug band.”*
*Jones, Michael L., Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), 98.
—Clinton Davis, Ph.D. is a freelance musician and educator born and raised in Kentucky and currently based in San Diego. He performs music from a variety of American traditions on guitar, banjo, piano, and mandolin, most visibly for the award-winning G Burns Jug Band. For more information, visit his website at clintonrossdavis.com