Jug Bands!

“Wake up, mama, hear your rooster crow. One at your window, one at your door.”
— The Birmingham Jug Band,
“Wild Cat Squawl,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and “Giving it Away” (rec. 1930)

A couple of Saturdays ago Birmingham Mountain Radio was beset by technical glitches, and my radio show hit the airwaves late — and even then in fits and starts. Because I didn’t want any of the music to get lost (I’d devoted the hour to one of my longest-running musical loves, the jug bands of the 1920s and ’30s) I cleaned up the broadcast and, while I was at it, added an extra half hour of music and history. I’ve uploaded it to the internet, here, so you can hear it anytime. Check it out.

As I explain in more detail on the show, the jug band craze of the ’20s and ’30s had its real start in Louisville before it found its greatest expression in Memphis. Other communities across the South could boast their own jug bands, and a handful of those bands made records. The extended version of Saturday’s show includes a couple of tunes from our own hometown group, The Birmingham Jug Band. I didn’t say much about this group on the air, so I thought I’d fill in a few blanks here.

One of the band’s members was Bogus Blind Ben Covington (Bogus Blind Ben, because he wasn’t really blind–how about that?), a banjo player and medicine show entertainer who also recorded a small handful of sides as a soloist. Mississippi bluesman Big Joe Williams claimed to have played in the group and cited Bessemer, Alabama, harmonica player Jaybird Coleman among the band’s other members; blues scholars have debated the accuracy of that claim ever since, and I won’t wade into it here. The remaining players come to us only as a string of evocative, shadowy nicknames: there was “Dr. Scott” and “One-Armed Dave,” a jug blower called “Honeycup,” and a washboard player known simply as “New Orleans Slide.” (How about that?)

An aside: right after I graduated from college, I got my first writing job as a freelancer for the All Music Guide, contributing artist bios and album reviews that still circulate, for better or worse, around the internet today. If you seek information online about the Birmingham Jug Band, you’ll end up looking at the couple of paragraphs I wrote a couple of decades ago. I learned a good deal while writing all those old bios, but I’m embarrassed now by a fair amount of the writing. Oh, well: I just reread the Birmingham Jug Band bio and it’s not so bad.

Here’s some of what it says:

“Of all the jug bands of the ’20s and ’30s, the Birmingham band had one of the most distinctive sounds on record, though their repertoire was significantly less diverse than that of groups like the Memphis Jug Band or Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Probably the only full jug band from south of Memphis to record, the group had a more rural sound than its contemporaries, reflecting the aesthetics of the country string band as much as the popular jug band. The group’s eight recordings are characterized by a prominent lead mandolin and equally prominent harmonica; gruff, heavy vocals; and a throbbing rhythm enforced largely by the insistently pounding jug. Also recording in the same Atlanta studio that day was King David’s Jug Band, another little-documented group; together, these two outfits produced some of the liveliest and most intriguing records from the height of the jug band era.”

I will certainly stand by that last statement: these are great records, rowdy and raucous and entirely infectious.

(A further aside: for the jug band bio I was awarded fifteen dollars and a byline. I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, at the time and waiting tables for a regional restaurant chain that described itself as “an upscale Applebee’s.” My income was supplemented with a few other money-making schemes, besides the All Music gig: I substitute taught, delivered the Yellow Pages, and put new strings on guitars and banjos at a bluegrass-minded music store. With two other friends I produced one issue of an oral history magazine, before we all moved on to other places and projects. For fifty dollars a month I rolled the trash cans at my apartment building to the street twice a week, and for another fifty I did the same thing at another building nearby. It was almost always sunny and I rarely thought about the future.)

But this was supposed to be a post about jug bands. I’ll leave it at this: I have been in love with jug bands for a long, long time, ever since I first discovered them in high school on a couple of Folkways records. Saturday before last I was lucky enough, even with the technical glitches, to play a bunch of those old songs over the radio. In case you missed it, or didn’t get enough, you can now stream the extended mix anytime your heart desires.

So. Give it a listen. Be well. Thanks.

P. S. I just remembered something else I wrote about the Birmingham Jug Band (I’ve spent a lot of time over the years contemplating this mostly forgotten band): I included them and their instrumental breakdown, the “Birmingham Blues,” in my little collection of “Thirty Birmingham Songs,” published in 2011. This is some of what I said then:

“Almost half of the songs recorded by the Birmingham group consist of essentially the same melody—their “Birmingham Blues” closely echoes their “German Blues,” “Giving it Away,” “Getting Ready for Trial,” and others—but each time and with some variation the band proves it can play the hell out of that particular tune. Other instrumental odes to the city would be recorded in later years … but Birmingham has never sounded better, freer, or wilder than in it does in this blues. (Anyone out there, incidentally, who believes the worn stereotype that the music of the blues is a depressive and mournful thing had better listen to this record and get right.)”

I’ll only add to that that I find all the repetition in this band’s repertoire totally endearing. The lyric at the top of this post appears in three of their eight recordings, running as a refrain through their work. “Wake up mama, hear your rooster crow–one at your window, one at your door.”

You have to admit, it’s a good line.

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