After spending 21 years of my life appreciating music from the sidelines, I recently began the wonderful journey of familiarising myself with an instrument- probably not your typical my-first-instrument either. I chose the banjo. Being from a rural region of South Australia, the music programme at school only began when I was in my early teens, and I found myself struggling frustratedly with introductory keyboard exercises due to an injury I sustained to my right hand as a child which leaves me with only wavering control of my ring and “pinky” fingers. Inevitably, I ceased music lessons as soon as I was allowed to, got myself a library card, maxed it out with classic albums and made friends with music the only way that seemed available to me; with my ears.
Since those days I’ve been happily exploring, discovering, listening and sharing music without really yearning to understand the nuts and bolts of it to any greater extent- up until a few months ago when I began to read about the banjo and its history in greater depth. Whilst most people identify the banjo with bluegrass and country music, its roots come from early African American origins and features heavily in Negro spiritual music throughout the 19th century, during which period African Americans were enslaved. The banjo was popularised by minstrel shows throughout the early 20th century, and eventually made its way into Ragtime, Dixieland, Jazz, Blues, Old-time, Bluegrass, any many other varieties African American Folk music. What I find particularly interesting is the means by which these early minstrel styles of African American music evolved and made way for the subsequent ones. Whilst the academic study of streams of music through culture is probably best left to historians and ethnomusicologists, I feel like no-one would really be asking to see my academic transcript if I simply wanted to shed a little light on one of these bridging catalysts in the history of African American folk music: the Jug Band. Much to my delight, although none to my surprise, the banjo was a prominent ingredient of this wonderful era in folk music as well.
The Jug Band, as you’d expect, was differentiated from similar styles of music you’d find in Juke Joints throughout the south of the USA by the distinct sound of a jug blower- which brought a hoarse and docile tone that played a similar role to that of the trombone or tuba in Dixieland styles. The rest of the band was usually made up of a variety of home-made or adapted instruments like washboards, tubs, cutlery and the like, as well as more conventional instruments like guitars and banjos, though sometimes these were DIY jobs as well. I recently found a record titled “The Jug Bands” in my local second hand vinyl retailer which was compiled by Samuel Charters and pitched as the ultimate beginner’s guide to they style- so I won’t stray too far away from the artists featured on that compilation in this introductory piece.
One of the most successful and longest serving Jug Bands was The Memphis Jug Band, started by guitarist Will Shade in the late 1920s. Their sound was typically an early example of blues.
Proceeding the Memphis Jug Blowers was the Kentucky born Clifford Hayes whom composed and released music with a number of bands including the Old Southern Jug Band, The Dixieland Jug Blowers and Clifford Hayes’ Louisville Stompers. Clifford Hayes was a violinist- and his music is distinctively violin happy when compared to other bands around the same time.
Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers was another influential group throughout the late 1920s. Cannon was born in Mississippi and taught himself to play a banjo that he made himself from a frying pan and a raccoon skin. He lived to the ripe old age of 96. You’ll recognise “Walk Right In” from the fantastically popular pop cover version by The Rooftop Singers from the ’60s.