Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band

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At the peak of the American folk revival, Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band reintroduced an essential component into folk music: fun. While thousands attended the March on Washington in 1963 and others traveled…
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At the peak of the American folk revival, Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band reintroduced an essential component into folk music: fun. While thousands attended the March on Washington in 1963 and others traveled to the South to participate in voting drives, Kweskin and his partners in crime played kazoos and washboards in Boston coffeehouses. For every time Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome," the Jug Band sang "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me." While conservative commentators of the time may have seen such irreverence as the beginning of the folk revival's end, others clapped their hands and stomped their feet as the band sang "My Gal" and "Rag Mama" with happy abandon.

Born in Stamford, CT, Kweskin arrived in Massachusetts in 1959 to attend Boston University. His interest in folk music, however, soon led him to travel throughout the United States collecting songs. Kweskin developed ideas for a jug band while passing through California, St. Louis, and Denver in 1961-1962, and put together the first incarnation of his new group when he returned to Boston in 1963. Joined by guitarist Geoff Muldaur, banjoist Bob Siggins, harmonica player Bruno Wolf, and jug player Fritz Richmond, the new band played at locals spots like Club 47 in Cambridge.

Jug bands like Cannon's Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band had been popular during the 1930s, but Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band had no intention of copying the old style verbatim. In fact, Kweskin stated that the band shouldn't be considered revivalists at all. "We not only have no one 'tradition' to try to be faithful to," he told Nat Hentoff, "but for much of what we play, we don't know if we even have tradition to be concerned with. We can do almost anything we want." For audiences of the time, weaned on moldy ballads and inundated with protest songs, the idea of a folk-styled jug band playing "Memphis" was absolutely intoxicating.

Even before the band had formed, Maynard Solomon of Vanguard had offered Kweskin a chance to record, but he demurred until he could put a proper band together. Several months later, the Jug Band had signed and recorded Unblushing Brassiness for the label. The band's good-time hijinks easily transferred from the stage to the studio to create one of year's most entertaining albums. Combining blues, jazz, and old jug band tunes with an arsenal of odd instruments -- steel guitar, combs, and a Morier (similar to vaudeville spoons) -- Kweskin and company showed that it is possible to enjoy oneself and still make great music.

The band hit the road after finishing the recording in New York City, but since Siggins had other commitments, he was replaced by banjoist Mel Lyman. The Jug Band played at the Bitter End in New York City, and traveled to the West Coast for The Steve Allen Show with Johnny Carson sitting in on kazoo in March of 1964. They also put in an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, which included a good-time performance of "Sadie Green (The Vamp of New Orleans)" (the band would return to Newport in 1964 and 1965).

Over its history, Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band's personnel changed frequently. By 1965 banjoist Bill Keith and singer Maria D'Amator (later Muldaur) had joined. The second release, Jug Band Music, found Kweskin's group hitting its stride with an unusual version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis," the title cut, and Maria D'Amator's showstopper, "I'm a Woman." In the album's liner notes, Lyman paints the band as one big happy family. "Jim is our leader and he does all the work. Marilyn [Kweskin] does the cooking. We love Jim and Marilyn because they take care of us."

By 1967 the folk revival that had spawned groups like Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band had moved over to make room for folk-rock and acid rock. The group held together nonetheless, and following Kweskin's solo album in 1966 (Relax Your Mind), the Jug Band returned to the Vanguard studio. The core of the band -- Kweskin, Muldaur, D'Amator, Lyman, Keith, and Richmond -- remained, but the album photo shows a tired, indifferent crew. The results of See Reverse Side for Title were mixed as the band used a heavier production to stretch its style. The best cuts though, "Chevrolet" and "Richland Woman," were as fine as anything the Jug Band had ever recorded.

Following See Reverse Side for Title, Kweskin & the Jug Band jumped to Reprise, where they recorded Garden of Joy in 1967. By 1968, however -- the same year Vanguard issued a best-of collection by the Jug Band -- the members had gone their separate ways. Kweskin withdrew from the music business for several years, but returned to pursue a solo career in the early '70s. After her separation from Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur recorded under her own name and scored a Top Ten hit with "Midnight at the Oasis" in 1973. While Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band are often shuffled aside when historians recall the Great Folk Scare, both Greatest Hits and Acoustic Swing & Jug on Vanguard do a fine job of reminding listeners how much fun folk music can be.