There are certain LPs that could predictably be found in the record collections of just about anyone who was touched by the folk revival of the early-to-mid-’60s and its later crossover into rock music. Among those was, almost always, something by Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band: a “best of” collection if not one of such classics as Jug Band Music, Relax Your Mind, Jump for Joy or See Reverse Side for Title. It was infectious feel-good music that defied all resistance from any who once gave it an ear.
The genre that Kweskin’s Boston-based coterie revitalized came to be known as “jug band music,” even though the inclusion of jug-playing wasn’t truly an essential; in fact, harmonica-player Mel Lyman famously wrote in some liner notes that the late Fritz Richmond was “the only member of the band who can really blow a jug.” The original jug bands were a phenomenon of poverty, especially among Southern blacks during the Great Depression, who used instruments upcycled from household junk like old washtubs, washboards, cigar boxes and broomhandles, in addition to clay jugs. The iteration that simultaneously became wildly popular in England – there called skiffle, and practiced by the Beatles when they were still known as the Quarrymen – left jugs out entirely.
Richmond gained renown as the world’s foremost washtub-bass-player, and kazoos and wax-paper-covered combs were also part of the Kweskin Jug Band’s funky homemade sound; but it also incorporated “normal” instruments like guitar, banjo and mandolin. Mostly it mined the music of the 1920s through ’40s; its signature mix was an amalgam of country blues, ragtime, swing and old-timey bluegrass, with overtones of jump jazz, early rockabilly, Rudy Vallee-era Hollywood and even the occasional turn-of-the-century satirical political song.
The ragtime-blues fingerpicking of artists like Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis was then, and still is today, beautifully channeled through Jim Kweskin’s guitar-playing. In his youth, he had the sort of tenor voice typically described as “nasal” (even though it’s really the opposite), which lent itself well to funny songs and contributed a great deal to the lighthearted aura of what was fundamentally a blues band. Age has only mellowed Kweskin’s pipes, and he still plays with syncopated verve and a clear, ringing guitar tone that might remind you as much of Doc Watson as of deep Delta blues.
Kweskin’s Jug Band propelled many careers and lured topnotch players from other bands, including two members of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys: banjoist Bill Keith and fiddler Richard Greene. It also spawned many imitators – notably the Even Dozen Jug Band, whose members included Stefan Grossman, David Grisman, Steve Katz, Maria d’Amato, Joshua Rifkin and John Sebastian. Lead singer D’Amato jumped ship for the Kweskin lineup, married guitarist/mandolinist/vocalist Geoff Muldaur, changed her name and later had a Top 40 hit with “Midnight at the Oasis.”
If you’re noticing a lot of Woodstock connections in these crossovers, that’s not a coincidence, and it’s something you might want to take into consideration when you find out that Jim Kweskin is headlining “An Evening of Folk Revival” this Friday at the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz. The appearance of unannounced special guests seems not unlikely – especially if Sebastian happens to be in town, considering that he has been doing sporadic touring in the Northeast of late with Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur, under the handle of Jug Band Giants.
More than 50 years have gone by, and these guys clearly still can’t get enough of doing this kind of music. Its jaunty appeal never seems to fade. Come on out and get your dose, while some of its modern masters are still alive and kicking.
“An Evening of Folk Revival” opens with New Paltz’s own Americana singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist David Kraai at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 22 at Unison. Ticket prices are $25 general admission, $22 for seniors, $20 for Unison members and $15 for students. For tickets and additional information, call (845) 255-1559 or visit www.unisonarts.org. The Unison Arts Center is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road, just west of New Paltz.