Prior to the Civil War, sugar and cotton were the dominant commodities in the Southern states. So was slave labor. New Orleans then had the largest slave market in the United States. But it was also the only place where slaves were allowed to use drums and to sing in the plantations. Throughout the 18th century, slaves gathered in the Congo Square in the French Quarter, where the Louis Armstrong Park now stands. On Sundays, or their days off, they formed circles and practiced the dance and drumming tradition, which was reminiscent of African culture. Jazz started there, from the widespread use of surplus instruments such as fifes, bugles and snare drums that had been shipped from battlefields to New Orleans via steamboat. History books seldom explain that Armstrong began his career in a house of ill repute in the city’s red-light district. (multiplecities.org)
New Orleans is a large and very old American city that existed long before Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803, but what about blues musicians in Mississippi and Texas boondocks in the late 19th century who were so poor they could not afford a guitar or even a harmonica? Necessity might be the mother of invention, but poverty breeds a certain kind of music from instruments made from scraps: the early blues. In the absence of tubas or trombones, early bluesmen turned to using discarded objects like old jugs for those deep bass background sounds. All musicians had to do was blow into their large jugs.
Jug band instruments can easily be made from household objects: some jugs held corn whiskey, some coal oil or turpentine, but no matter its purpose, every home had a jug. The bass was built from a washtub, broom handle, and scrap baling wire or rope, and those who couldn’t afford a kazoo could usually find scraps of wax paper and put that over a comb for an instant horn section. Even the stringed instrument could be built from a pie plate and other kitchen items, though a guitar, banjo, ukulele or fiddle was preferred.
“The jug band’s existence is a statement that anything can be made musical, and anyone can make music. By incorporating all manner of homemade instruments, jug bands were hugely popular in America during the 1920s and early 1930s. With an unparalleled vibrancy this ‘do it yourself’ and often overlooked approach to music was highly influential in the history of the blues,” explains the memphismusichalloffame.com website.
Jug bands from Louisville, Kentucky were the first to record. The violinist Clifford Hayes’s Old Southern Jug Band recorded as early as 1923. Whistler & His Jug Band, often making use of a nose whistle (or humanatone, is a small flute-like instrument that is inserted in a musician’s nose), first recorded in September 1924 for Gennet Records. Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers were also among the first to record.
“Louisville bands often used whiskey jugs and were more jazz-oriented, a melding of string band and ragtime influences. Jug bands made street performances, played at parties, and began entertaining on riverboats on the Ohio River around 1900 and first appeared at the Kentucky Derby in 1903,” claims Wikipedia.
Louisville might have been the first, but the city best known for jug bands was Memphis, Tennessee. In fact, the jug band may be the quintessential expression of the Memphis music underground, of giving the power to the people. The Memphis Jug Band, led by Will Shade (1898-1966), was a rotating group of musicians who made more than 60 recordings for Victor Records between 1927 and 1932, and continued to record into the 1950s, well after the jug’s heyday.
The Memphis Jug Band borrowed from the Louisville model but added the kazoo as a prominent lead instrument, similar in sound to a trumpet in a jazz band. Another variation from the Louisville sound was a focus on country blues songs, like those favored by Jim Jackson (1876-1933) and other Memphis-area solo artists. Their body of work has inspired folk, rock and pop bands from the 1960s to the present (for example, see Pink Floyd’s 1968 “Jugband Blues”). One of the Memphis Jug Band’s greatest hits was their 1930 recording of “Going Back to Memphis,” whose lyrics go like this:
“I’m leavin’ here, mama, don’t you wanna go?
I’m leavin’ here, mama, don’t you wanna go?
Because I’m sick and tired of this ice and snow
When I get back to Memphis, you can bet I’ll stay
Say, when I get back to Memphis, honey, you can bet I’ll stay
And I ain’t gonna leave until that judgment day
I love ol’ Memphis, the place where I was born
Sure do love it, boy!
I love ol’ Memphis, the place where I was born
Where my … and drink my bottle of corn.”
The Memphis Jug Band’s visibility declined in the mid-1930s as a result of the overall decline in commercial recordings, a shift in musical taste toward more urbane swing music, and violence occurring in Memphis, states Wikipedia.
Memphis Jug Band plays “Going Back to Memphis”