Arlo Leach is a musician, songwriter, and the leader of The Hump Night Thumpers, a class in jug band music at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. The class also acts as a gig-performing band.
The Thumpers won the 2007 Battle of the Jug Bands, an annual competitive goof held in Minneapolis. The Battle's traveling trophy, a 1936 Holliwood-brand waffle iron, has been proudly displayed at the Old Town for the past year.
The winning band also chooses the next year's judges, and Arlo responded positively to my
incessant whining impressive application to be a judge at this year's competition. YESSSS! The Celestial Monochord will help choose the winner of the 2008 Battle, which is this Sunday, February 10 at the Cabooze Bar.
I fired questions at Arlo in one email, and he fired back answers in another. Many sincere thanks to him.
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CM: Your year as keeper of the waffle iron is coming to an end. How does it feel to be handing it over to the next winner?
AL: We tend to take our performances pretty seriously, so it's actually a relief to know that a repeat victory is basically prohibited. We're going to be a lot more relaxed and I'm looking forward to just enjoying a whole day of jug band music ... a unique opportunity.
CM: Was there a ticker tape parade down State Street when you came back home with the waffle iron? What did the people at Old Town say?
AL: As the instructor of the class that is the Hump Night Thumpers, my credibility went way up! Everyone at the school was excited and I received spontaneous applause at staff meetings and performances for weeks. The school has a monthly First Friday event, and at the next First Friday, we hosted a jam session and served free waffles to all participants. I don't think the Battle organizers realize just how excited we all were about this!
CM: It took me a while to understand what the heck your band, the Hump Night Thumpers, really is. How did it get started?
AL: The Old Town School is really great about letting teachers try out new classes, so I offered to teach a class on the Anthology of American Folk Music. To my surprise, nobody seemed to know what that was and the class wasn't very successful. After a few sessions, I suggested focusing on just one style of music from the Anthology — jug band music — and we had an instant success. The class has been running for three years now and it's sold out most sessions. I guess there was a lot of pent-up demand for jug band music here.
CM: Why jug band music? Why don't you teach something else?
AL: I also teach general guitar classes at the school, but my motivation for teaching music is that I want to give people a creative outlet. Jug band music is much more accessible, so rather than spending months and years learning to play guitar, you can jump right in with a kazoo and join the band.
CM: What's your teaching method? If I signed up to be a Hump Night Thumper, what would I experience?
AL: I have some warm and outgoing students who really make the class what it is. As soon as a new person walks in the room, someone hands them an instrument, and someone else gives them tips on how to play it. We find a song they'd like to sing; they get a nickname; pretty soon they're up on stage at one of our gigs. I supply the songs and give direction on arrangements, but the other students provide the momentum that makes the class so fun.
CM: Do you use the one-room schoolhouse model, where the more knowledgeable kids teach the less experienced? Is it tough to decide when to intervene in what's happening?
AL: This is the third question in a row where you anticipated my answer from the previous question! Yes, that's the model. The only problem is that new people might find it hard to learn new instruments, and I like everyone to play a variety of instruments. So, we started an introductory class where I could focus on the playing technique for each of the instruments before students joined the main group ... but that wasn't very successful and we dropped it. In the big class, I'm not able to provide much one-on-one help, but we'll stop and focus on different things from time to time.
CM: I imagine different classes have different personalities. I certainly hear a lot of different textures in the Hump Night Thumper CD, Hare of the Jug. It's a varied collection.
AL: Actually, the overall tone of the class has been the same, but we've had some unique individuals in the group. The Members page at humpnightthumpers.com will give you an idea. Also, some of the songs have been sung by different people over the years, and it's fun to see what style different people put into the songs. That CD was recorded over two years with something like 20 different members.
CM: What's it like to bring the Hump Night Thumpers to Minneapolis for the Battle of the Jug Bands? That must be quite an expedition!
AL: We all leave the same place and arrive at the same place but by different routes! Some will fly and some will drive; some will go up and back the same day and others will make a vacation of it. My wife and I have friends that we'll stay with, so I haven't paid much attention to the logistics for the others, but they'll be there with their sequins and bow ties.
It's funny, by the way: we first heard about the Battle of the Jug Bands about a week before the event three years ago, when our class had just started. Everyone immediately wanted to go! At that time it was too late to register, but when it came around again the next year we were all over it. Going to Minneapolis in February is not a small undertaking, but I love how enthusiastic these folks are. Have jug, will travel.
CM: You're teaching jugband music at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. I picture a lot of ghosts listening in — and not just the 60's and 70's, but the 20's and 30's, and beyond. What do you think about that? You make it part of the Humpnighter's experience, don't you?
AL: For me, jug band music is all about the 20's and 30's, and I love finding stories about the original musicians and sharing them with the class. Also, jug band music is a small niche, so it's been fairly easy to meet the experts in the field and pick up stories from them. I'm just trying to collect all the knowledge I can because I love the music and the history so much.
CM: Among the many photos included with the Hare of the Jug CD is one of you standing next to Gus Cannon's grave. I love that. Tell me about that photo.
AL: I think it's kind of a blues fan tradition to try finding the graves of your blues heroes, so a couple years ago I made an expedition to Memphis to find a handful of jug band musicians. I had known about Cannon's grave because Del Goldfarb organized a fundraiser about ten years ago to add a larger gravestone. He gave me directions, although it still wasn't easy to find! Now you can zoom right in on a Google map I set up.
That trip is when I learned, by the way, that Will Shade is buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper's cemetery. That inspired my own gravestone benefit project, which is well underway and will conclude with a ceremony in Memphis in April or May. You can read more about that at www.willshadetribute.com.
CM: I've enjoyed your disc Show Biz, about being a struggling singer-songwriter. You already sound like an old hand — there's a lot of long hours of thought in that CD. What's it like to think about Show Biz today, a decade down the road?
AL: I tend to look at my previous work and think, "Oh man, that is so amateur," so I'm glad you liked it! In a way, the Ancestors CD is the flip side of that, because Show Biz was about trying to become a professional performer, and Ancestors was about realizing that you can make a lot of great music without giving up your day job. It was a good experience to spend a few years plugging myself and trying to make a career of it, but now my interest in music is to learn and get better, rather than to make money somehow.
CM: Your CD Music of My Ancestors is partly a response to The Anthology of American Folk Music. Obviously, so is The Celestial Monochord. When did you first hear Harry Smith's anthology?
AL: I was reading a lot about Dylan and kept hearing references to the Anthology, so I finally ordered a copy and was instantly blown away. I'd heard pre-war music before, here and there, but this was such a great collection that I lost interest in my own stuff. I just wanted to play "Peg and Awl" at every gig! I still laugh when I read those little headlines in Harry Smith's liner notes. What a treasure.
CM: You must have had a deep history with folk music growing up — your parents named you after Guthrie, after all. So, did the Anthology influence you beyond what you heard growing up? What did it teach you that didn't already know?
AL: I was brought up on Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, with a little Dylan and Joan Baez thrown in, but I didn't have access to this earlier music for a long time. The pre-war music is a paradox, though. On the one hand, it seems ancient, from another era; but it's actually just a few decades earlier than Buddy Holly. I haven't wrapped my head around that yet, but I think it's easy to romanticize this distant time and forget that maybe things weren't that different then. The book Escaping the Delta addresses this topic a bit, by the way.
CM: Music of My Ancestors really looks the anthology right in the eye, responds to it directly. It seems to have come out of a lot of sincerely affectionate, playful time spent with the Anthology and its genres. Anyway, that what it sounds like, and I really enjoy that CD. Tell me about why you made this CD. What came out of it for you?
AL: I was so uninterested in my own music after hearing the Anthology that the Ancestors project was a compromise. It allowed me to keep songwriting, while also indulging in this new interest. My interest in original music has continued to wane, though, and now I'm playing virtually nothing but jug band music. The stuff is addictive.
I'm actually planning to record some replicas of the classic jug band recordings, not for release, just for private study. Learning to play, and especially learning to record, definitely enhances your enjoyment of the music.
CM: What's next for you? And what's next for the Hump Night Thumpers?
AL: Will Shade! In Memphis! April 2008! You should come!