Jim Kweskin is one of the great, lost and forgotten heroes of American music.
It’s not that he didn’t have his time in the sun.
But his time passed and his audience got older and he failed to pick up any new devotees.
At his peak in the mid to late 60s he was never less than interesting. The zeitgeist of that time was one of musical experiment. Styles were mashed up. Pre-rock styles were explored. It wasn’t enough to just write good pop songs so artists dug deep into the American musical heritage. Performance and writing were sometimes secondary to inventiveness in this environment.
On the back of this, and the folk explosion of the early 60s, came Kweskin and his Jug Band.
Yep, there was a time when jug rock bands ruled the airwaves. Well, not quite, but jug bands did find an audience (mainly amongst university students and musical archaeologists) and did capture some of the market.
The jug band tradition dates back to white Appalachia and black southern rural field workers but the early 60s folk revival brought a renewed appreciation of the style.
Wikipedia define a jug band as “a band employing a jug player and a mix of traditional and home-made instruments. These home-made instruments are ordinary objects adapted to or modified for making of sound, like the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe and comb & tissue paper (kazoo)”
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was perhaps the most famous (used loosely) of the jug bands but there were others like the Even Dozen Jug Band, whilst elements of the style were also to be found in the Lovin’ Spoonful, The Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish, The 13th Floor Elevators and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The beauty of Kweskin and his band though is they were not traditionalists. There was a good dose of humour and more than a passing lip service to the music of the 1960s. They were in love with pre-rock country, folk, ragtime, trad jazz, and pop but they didn’t despise rock and roll either.
As the jug band “boom” faded many of its practitioners took those influences into rock and what became roots rock whilst others like Kweskin went solo and dug deeper into Americana, folk and pre-war music.
There are very few originals compositions but Kweskin digs up obscure (and not so obscure) songs and puts his mark on the same. What songs he chooses and how he styles his albums (and I suspect he has a lot of creative freedom as there aren’t major marketing considerations) give him as personal and singular voice as any singer songwriter.
This is personal music but I suspect people like Kweskin and Leon Redbone are happy to keep traditions alive and also keep the music relevant by drawing analogies between the past and the present.
The result I love listening to even if there is little broad appeal.
It’s a pity about the appeal because when you listen to this music it’s like listening to a history lesson to music. I love reading history and it wasn’t unusual for me to listen to a song and then rush off to my Encyclopaedia Britannica and read up on whatever the song was about.
This music still has that effect on me, though I now tend to use google or Wikipedia (groan).
The best of the music, though, manages to also capture the emotional content of the song not just the historical detail. Kweskin knows how to hit that mark, and throw in some humour also.
“America” was always going to be an ambitious title for an album. Kweskin has rounded up a batch of songs that, perhaps, tell of his love of the different forms of American music. Interestingly the songs he has chosen are largely “conservative” songs that he has rejigged for a more questioning audience (circa 1971).
There is no snide sarcasm, or grand ironic posturing though he does take the piss (albeit gently) on some of the songs. It’s as if he is saying; these songs are part of America’s musical fabric and it's not fair they have been taken over and become associated with the conservative (both political and musical) right, so it’s time to share them with everyone again.
Both the purists and avant-gardists will be happy as Kweskin does the songs straight enough for the former and with a knowing wink of nearly undetectable cynicism for the latter.
1971 perhaps wasn’t a very optimistic year in America…this album of old Americana leans to the dark and melancholy. The only song with a bit of fight, “Okie from Muskogee”, which was adopted by the middle and the right, is affectionately done though with a hint of that aforesaid cynicism and perhaps, maybe, a little irony.
Another point of interest is the specific mention of Mel Lyman: “co-starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman family”. Lyman had been in the Jim Kweskin Jug band before becoming a self-styled guru with a 100-member commune (the Lyman Family) in Boston. How much of an influence he was on Kweskin generally and on this album specifically (on which he played harmonica and sings) I don’t know but, clearly, he was an influence. Check out the links below,
Otherwise, the cover art is a great piece of collage : Sgt Peppers goes Americana.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Back in the Saddle – (Ray Whitley, Gene Autry) – A truly lovely version of the Gene Autry cowboy song – part jug, part avant-garde but wholly reverential.
- Sugar Babe – (Mance Lipscomb) – a beautifully realised version of the Mance Lipscomb Afro-American blues standard.
- Okie from Muskogee – (Merle Haggard, Ray Burris)- Phil Ochs had already brought Merle Haggard’s statement to the “left wing” masses (his audience). I'm not sure what Haggard’s intent was – his brand of patriotism is somewhat higher than the audience who made this into a # 1 country hit for him. It is a fun song and it is a song, I suspect, “long hairs” loved singing along to. Perhaps Kweskin takes the piss here but who knows.
- 99 Year Blues – (Julius Daniels) – arr by the Lyman Family- This song by Black bluesman Julius Daniels was made famous through its inclusion on a Folkways “Anthology of American Folk Music” album compilation from 1952 though the song dates back to the 20s. It is one of those typically death oriented fatalistic songs you hear from old American. And well done at that.
- Rambling Round Your City – (Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter)- Guthrie’s words on Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” melody. this is only marginally cheerier than the last tune. Woody had a melancholy side. If you go through the great depression you aint gonna be playing sunshine pop, if you know what I mean.
- Amelia Earhart's Last Flight – (David D. McEnery) – written and performed by Red River Dave McEnery in the late 1930s. McEnery was a western singer and leader of The Swift Cowboys group. This is quite a beautiful song (and history lesson) with especially gorgeous music. You can’t dance to it though.
- Stealin' – (The Memphis Jug Band) – the jug is turned down a little on this one despite being written by a jug band. I wonder where you learn to play the jug? Are there any jug teachers out there?
- Old Rugged Cross – (Rev George Bennard) – this is the old (it dates back to the 1920s) rugged gospel song done by everyone south of the Mason Dixon line.
- Dark as a Dungeon – (Merle Travis) – the classic Merle Travis song – quite depressing
- Old Black Joe – (Stephen Foster) – arr by the Lyman Family- and why would you end the album with an old Stephen Foster minstrel song? Holding up a mirror or wilfully obscure? Either way Kweskin plays it straight and it is quite haunting and melancholy like a lot of those John Ford films from the 30s.
Excellent …. I'm keeping it.
Nothing, no where
Back in the Saddle
Rambling Round Your City
Amelia Earhart's Last Flight
Old Rugged Cross
Old Black Joe