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Access for Seniors program with Sole e Mar, Lions Community Manor

Access to the Arts for Seniors is a new Center for World Music program presenting the world’s music dance, and related arts in affordable housing facilities for seniors with limited access to cultural enrichment. During Spring 2018, our Access to the Arts Coordinator, Stacey Barnett, organized five special programs in residential communities around the San Diego area.

Pictured above is our first event, a Mother’s Day celebration, May 9 at the Lion’s Community Manor, Market Street, San Diego, featuring Sol e Mar musicians David Shyde and Brian Pierini.

The series continued with a Memorial Day program, May 25, at the Escondido Garden Apartments, North Midway Drive, Escondido, with American roots and country music by Gemini Junction.

Access for Seniors program with Gemini Junction, Escondido Garden Apartments

Then a coffee hour on June 4 at Sorrento Tower Apartments, Cowley Way, San Diego, with Will Marsh performing “Lutes of the World” on guitar, Indian sitar, and Persian setar.

Access for Seniors program with Will Marsh, Sorrento Tower

Residents of St. John’s Plaza Apartments, Lemon Grove, enjoyed another coffee hour on June 13. This event featured Latin/Cuban music with drummer and CWM teaching artist Mark Lamson and guitarist Israel Maldonado.

Access for Senior program with Mark Lamson, St. John's Plaza

Finally, the season ended with a social at Guadalupe Plaza, San Diego, on July 2, featuring African American spirituals by Delores Fisher, member of the CWM’s Artistic Board.

Access for Seniors program with Delores Fisher, Guadalupe Plaza

Baptist Church Choir

This is an experiential narrative contributed by Delores Fisher, a member of our Artistic Advisory Board.

Several years ago, I participated at a local San Diego elementary school in a collaborative art project taught by different teachers, each an expert in a specific field, each with previous collaborative teaching experience. Our main goal was to provide students with a critical thinking lens through which to study slavery in the United States; our tools were visual art, dance, and music. All during the project, a young boy followed me talking about how he was not from California; he was from the South. He spent a lot of time with his grandmother and he “loved music.”

The first module of my segment introduced basic African drum rhythms, use of a time line to hold the patterns together, basic body movements, and short vocal passages sung a cappella—in this case specifically without melodic support. Then I introduced altered clapping/foot stomping techniques used by slaves to provide the steady pulse in place of the time line when drums were banned.

Our next segment introduced slave songs, slow and fast in tempo. We noted that some of these songs did not have solid evidence as to origins and that many of the songs are still sung today by a variety of artists, in various arrangements.

One song we sang was “Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride.”* It exists in at least three different versions. See all three versions here

I am not sure when or where I learned the up tempo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Stop and let me Ride.” I only remember singing it since childhood. The lyrics I learned are a variation on the original. This is what I taught the students:

Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride:
I’ve got a home on the other side.

We sang these words twice, then practiced the hand clap/foot stomp accompanying rhythm. We put it all together and sang it through twice. Before the third repetition, the little boy sitting next to me sang in a deeper voice, the secondary vocal part, before the chorus began again. I kept singing, keeping the others on track.

Why don’t you swing?
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Oh, swing!
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride.
Come on and swing!
Swing down, chariot, stop and let me ride:
I’ve, . . .
I’ve got a home on the other side.

As the song ended, we all clapped. Hands went up. “Did you plan this? Did you practice together?” I looked at the class and said, “Hey, we did not plan this!”

The young man smiled and said, “I learned it from my grandmother.”

Historic African American musical traditions were and are still being passed on orally, without notation, from generation to generation–via Internet videos or face to face. I absorbed many songs listening to my mother in her shimmering soprano voice as she moved about the house doing daily activities while my dad was at work. At times when he felt like it, my dad, who had sang in a group as a young man, would sing at home in a soft tenor voice. These memories still make me smile.

Many Afro-classical arrangers of slave songs also learned the original tune pre-transcribed from the voice of an elder. Children continue to listen to grandparents, parents, and other relatives singing in religious settings, recreational settings like picnics, domestic settings doing housework–cooking, mopping floors, vacuuming–and also at quiet time or nap time with the singing of lullabies. Oral transmission is woven into the fabric of Black cultural memories.

– Delores Fisher, MA, is a blogger, essayist, musician, poet, and lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies at San Diego State University. Professor Fisher serves as a member of the Center for World Music’s Artistic Advisory Board, with a specialty in African American sacred music 

*“Swing Down Chariot Stop And Let Me Ride” has been recorded in part or full by sacred and secular groups, soloists, and even international ensembles. A few Internet video/accessible examples: The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Elvis Presley,  The Golden Gate Quartet, The Imperials, The Gaithers, Dorothy Love Coates and The Gospel Harmonettes, The Soweto Gospel Choir, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Parliament/Funkadelics, and Dr. Dre used a line from the spiritual it in the “Chronic.”

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.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

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.

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

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 http://clintonrossdavis.com