Tuesday, January 03, 2023

You May Leave but This Will Bring You Back

The Memphis Jug Band was a shifting collection of African-American musicians that recorded some 70 or 80 sides of music between 1927 and 1934. Its guiding force was a singer, guitarist, and harmonica player named Will Shade. Other members tended to come and go, although kazoo player Ben Ramey and the guitarist (and ebullient vocalist) Charlie Burse were mainstays. Their music represented a strain of Black entertainment that was popular in its heyday in the 1920s and '30s but which is often forgotten or dismissed today, although a loyal corps of fans, collectors, and musicians have succeeded in keeping much of it in print for those who seek it out. Compared to saxes, electric guitars, and keyboards, kazoos and jugs just aren't generally regarded as being "serious" musical instruments, setting aside the fact that the band also employed acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and Will Shade's brilliant harmonica.

The first Memphis Jug Band compilation I owned was a two-LP album issued by Yazoo Records, which I must have bought not long after it was released in 1979. It had 28 tracks, good remastering, liner notes by the respected blues scholar Bengt Olsson, and some colorful front and back cover art by R. Crumb (who also created the trading card shown at the top of this post).
I got a lot of spins out of the Yazoo set but once CDs came along I started looking around for something I could play in the car, which is where I do most of my listening. (I can't comfortably read, converse, or even think with music in the background, but I can drive.) The Yazoo albums were eventually transferred to CD, minus five tracks, but I opted instead for a 36-track set from a label called Blues Classics. That label, which I think is now defunct, apparently had some sort of arrangement with Document Records, the big daddy in prewar American music re-issues, which originally was based in Austria. The Blues Classic set had perfunctory liner notes, but the tracks were well-chosen and it was cheap. I got twenty years out of it. Still, there were a few songs I remembered from the Yazoo set that I missed hearing.
This year I bought myself the 72-track collection on the Acrobat label shown below. Its liner notes, while extensive, lean a bit too much on Wikipedia and other online sources, and it includes some tracks of minor interest, but it's inexpensive and seems to be more or less as comprehensive as the alternatives. (What to include can be a matter for debate, as the band had various aliases and offshoots.) For the completist, Document Records probably has more thorough coverage, but their compilations aren't as conveniently packaged and several now seem to be only available as downloads. Seventy-two tracks should hold me for a while.
There are reasons why jug band music went out of favor — advances in musicianship, shifts in popular taste, complicated issues of racial and sexual politics, cultural embarrassment at anything that was perceived as "primitive" — but the best of it still has much to offer. It's lively and inventive, it's historically important to the development of American popular music, but most of all it's just plain exuberant fun. We should avoid nostalgia for the grim conditions of the segregated society in which it was made, but at the same time we shouldn't turn our backs on the vitality of its creators.

The first representative track, below, is from the band's initial session, in 1927. According to Samuel Charters, the vocalist is Will Weldon, but the song is really a showcase for the harmonica and kazoo. "Sun Brimmer" or "Son Brimmer" was a nickname of Will Shade's.

"Cocaine Habit" (1930) finds the band backing Hattie Hart, one of several female vocalists they worked with at various times, the most notable being Memphis Minnie. Shade's harmonica is again featured, and the guitar part is played by Tee Wee Blackman, who is said to have taught Shade the rudiments of the guitar.

"Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green" also from 1930, displays the band's vaudeville side; the lively vocalist is Charlie Nickerson.

Finally, here's one of my favorite tracks, one that's not included in the Acrobat set, probably because it was credited at the time to "the Carolina Peanut Boys." It's also from 1930 and Charlie Nickerson is again the lead vocalist, but it's the infectious instrumental section after the first couple of verses that really makes it sing. Vol Stevens plays the hybrid banjo-mandolin, and Shade once again is on harp. It's hard to resist.

The standard print sources on the Memphis Jug Band are the pioneering writings of Samuel Charters (The Country Blues, Sweet As the Showers of Rain) and Bengt Olsson (Memphis Blues); the latter is hard to find. There is an exhaustive, if somewhat outdated, online discography at Wirz' American Music.


Michael Leddy said...

That brightened my day — better than a Verilux light!

Chris said...

Enjoy, Michael.