Friday, May 6, 2011

Jug Bands

As the Marty Python crowd used to say, “Now for something completely different.” Well, not quite. This blog is mostly about bottles and booze and a post about jug bands fits both. For example, the Old Grand-Dad Jug Band, shown here on a early 1900s post card, was an advertisement for whiskey.

The names of this ensemble are lost in history but the brand they were merchandising lives on. Old-Grand-Dad bourbon was the product of a Marion County, Kentucky, distillery founded by the Hayden family about 1785. A grandson, Raymond Hayden, took the operation into full-scale commercial production when in 1882 he built a distillery at Hobbs Station in Nelson County.

When Raymond died without heirs the distillery was sold. Over the years it went through several ownerships until Prohibition in 1920 shut the plant down for good. The brand name has continued to be perpetuated to this day, reputedly using the original Hayden formula. By employing a jug band to merchandise Old Grand-Dad in the pre-Prohibition era, the distillers were clearly appealing to an African-American audience. Early jug bands typically were black.

Their instruments were a mix of traditional: fiddle and guitar -- and homemade: washboards, tubs, and, of course, jugs. The last was essential. Its swooping sounds filled a musical niche somewhere between a trombone and a tuba. Usually stoneware and sometimes glass, a jug is played by buzzing the lips into the mouth to play low and mid-range harmonies in rhythm. Experts could achieve two octaves, controlling changes in pitch by altering lip tension.

Jug bands clearly had a certain commercial appeal. Schlitz, a nationally known Milwaukee beer of German heritage, issued a trade card for its five-man jug band. The brewery clearly saw this ensemble as a good marketing image for its sales of Schlitz in Africa-American communities. Like the Old Grand-Dad band, this one was left anonymous. A recent CD release uses the same picture on the cover, however, and identifies the group as the Memphis Jug Band, one the most famous of the genre.

This ensemble was organized by singer-guitarist Will Shade. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he lived there virtually all his life until he died in 1966. Other members of the band over the years included Ben Ramey, Charles Polk and Will Weldon. Between 1927 and 1934 the group recorded nearly 75 musical numbers whose up-tempo rhythms continue to delight. The Memphis Jug Band also is shown here in a later photo and in a color illustration by the famous American illustrator, R. Crumb, himself a passionate fan of blues, jazz and early country music.

Not just alcohol fueled the use of jug bands in commercials. Here are shown five musicians, with a prominent jug, called the Ballard Chefs Jug Band. They were regulars on Louisville radio station WHAS-AM. It broadcast their weekly program from the 1920s through the early 1930s over the Eastern half of the United States, sponsored by the Ballard Flour Company Fiddler Henry Miles was the leader. The legendary Earl McDonald for three years (1929-1932) did vocals and extraordinary jug-blowing.

After a period of neglect, during the folk music fever of the late 50s and early 60s jug bands revived. Most of them featured white musicians. Shown here is the Jolly Joe’s Jug Band. It was founded by record collector and music impresario Joe Bussard. The jug being used by Joe’s band, a 20th Century cylinder of stoneware, seems mighty puny compared to the earlier bands.

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