Interview with Arlo Leach

Arlo Leach & The Hump Night Thumpers
The Hump Night Thumpers (with Arlo Leach, singing at right)
Battle of the Jug Bands, Minneapolis, 2007

 

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.

— — —

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!

 


Let's Talk Dirty

Slipped a Mickey
(a member of Slipped A Mickey plays a jug
mounted on a microphone stand)
 
 
It's funny.  Pat Donahue has been playing guitar on A Prairie Home Companion for over 13 years.  He's a world-class fingerstyle player, to my ears, and Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke (whose ears are better educated on the subject) agree.  Playing for Garrison Keillor must be a bear, as you have to be ready to ... you know, whatever ... play in almost any genre, or play as if you were a freezing-cold drunken cowboy, or make your guitar sound like it was broken in half or ...

Despite all this, my impression is that Donahue has not been especially well known in Minnesota.  At least given the fine, difficult, consistent, high-profile labor he's performed for us over a long time, it doesn't seem we've ever really focused on the guy and appreciated him.  Well, that's been my sense anyway.
 
Until that sushi song.  Back in 2000, Donahue played a song he'd written — a stupid song, really, but very funny — about getting sick from sushi.  It was called "Sushi Yucki."  The response was kind of huge, and it seems to be raising his profile. 
 
Tickets to an upcoming concert by Donahue were used this past Saturday to draw memberships during Minnesota Publc Radio's pledge drive — and "Sushi Yucki" was aired in its entirety, as if to remind us who the guy is and how great it would be to see him perform.  He'll have no choice but to play "Sushi Yuki" at his concert:

They think it sounds so yummy
But, hey, I ain't no dummy
I knew no way
It would stay
Down in my tummy
I took a bite
And I was right
No likee icky yucky sushi
A moral of the story, of course, is you never know what's going to draw an audience. 
 
Now, the 25th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands was on Sunday (the day after I last heard "Sushi Yucki" on the radio). One of the contestants was a band called Slipped a Mickey, which I enjoyed very much even if they just couldn't compete with the winners, The Hump Night Thumpers — THE FIGHTIN' THUMPERS!
 
Slipped a Mickey played John Prine's novelty song "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" as a kind raunchy, down-tempo, coffeehouse blues. Having heard the two songs so close together, I finally recognized their affinity.

Like "Sushi Yucki," you want to listen to "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" over and over until you feel like ... well, like you've had too much sushi.  Both songs begin in my stomping grounds, the Upper Midwest, and then travel to the islands of the Pacific, where the narrator's bodily functions dominate the action:

I am from Minnesota
I went to Tokyo-ta
Visit the land
Of enchantment and quaint pagoda
I almost died
The night they tried
To make me eat that yucky sushi.

--

Well, I packed my bags and bought myself a ticket
For the land of the tall palm tree
Aloha Old Milwaukee, Hello Waikiki
I just stepped down from the airplane
When I heard her say
Waka waka nuka licka, waka waka nuka licka
Would you like a lei? Hey!
Both songs could be seen as racist, of course, depending as they do on faux-foreign gibberish.  But like a lot of parody that traverses sensitive terrain, the songs are careful not to over-clarify the object of parody.  Are we laughing at how funny the Japanese and Hawaiian languages sound?  Or at Minnesotans — unable, as we are, to keep anything down but tuna casserole?  Or at the jejune mating habits of Wisconsinites?
 
When I saw Prine last year in Minneapolis, he made a rather deliberate show of trudging resignedly through "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian," as if he had to do it whether he liked it or not. Three-quarters of the way through this surprisingly lengthy song, he vamped for a few seconds and warned us, "There's more."

 

Editor's Note: I try to write these a day ahead, but given Valentine's Day, I might be a little late with the February 15 post. Do I piss off my wife or the readers of my blog? Gentle reader, you just might lose that coin toss.

Anyway, this is the 14th installment of my 28-day attempt to post something every day in February. So, this entry is like Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra's "Moonshiner's Dance" — the mid-way point is marked by the silence immediately following. Be seated!

 

 

Battle of the Jug Bands, 2007 Results

Gizmo
(Gizmo, a member of The Hump Night Thumpers)

The votes are tallied and authorized, and the winners of the 25th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands has been announced!

This year's winners — the jug band honored with one year's possession of the traveling trophy, a 1936 Holliwood-brand waffle iron — are The Hump Night Thumpers!

I'm proud to say that the Thumpers are from my sweet home, Chicago. The members of the band are the students of the Hump Night Thumpers class at the Old Town School of Folk Music — the band's membership rotates, with the lineup at any given moment depending on who has enrolled in the class.

The fearless leader of this band — and indeed, the leader of the large expedition that has traveled two years in a row from Chicago to Minneapolis to compete in the Battle — is one Arlo Leach, guitar instructor at the Old Town.

Unfortunately, they performed near the end of the evening, by which time I had pretty much abandoned note-taking in favor of photography. I would love to give a song-by-song analysis, but I was frankly spacing out. They certainly were a compelling jug band, I remember that.

The Thumpers were dressed in fine evening formal wear, circa 1930, bringing a bit of class to the Cabooze. In this, they joined the long tradition of elevating the reputation of marginalized musical forms through sartorial elegance and dignified personal conduct (recall Bascom Lamar Lunsford in his tux, for example).

I also remember that Arlo impressed both the judges and The Celestial Monochord by introducing their last song with this:

This next song was recorded in 1934 in Chicago, where we're from. A lot of you know the song "Jug Band Quartet" — well, this was the B-side of that record, and it's called "Little Green Slippers." [approximate quote]
See, after you've heard the evening's fifth rendition of that "Hey lordy momma momma, hey lordy poppa poppa" thing, you start to get the general idea. It was worth several extra points to hear some indication that the band knew jug band music had a life before the CD. And the LP. And the 45.

Congratulations to our jug-playing cousins to the south!

Saggy
(The feller and one of five grandmas
comprising Grandma's Saggy Jug Band)

Now, I know you're wondering how last year's winners, Grandma's Saggy Jug Band, performed this year. Grandma's Saggy, as you know, was given the honor of choosing this year's judging panel. Because they — no doubt unlike THIS year's wise and talented winners! — never contacted me about serving as a member of the judging panel, I had no choice but to JUDGE THEM ANYWAY. And believe me, I was very judgy!

Grandma's Saggy Jug Band mounted the stage looking quite well-fed and self-satisfied from an entire year of eating waffles made with their trophy waffle iron. Audience members were universally honored that they had even bothered to wipe the syrup from the sides of their mouths!

Now, I suppose a few of the drunker audience members were dazzled by their fancy musicianship — "Cigarettes and Whisky and Wild Wild Women," especially, highlighted the rhythm section's slick ability to maintain a driving, danceable momentum while also filling each measure with dense, intricate polyrhythms. It was breathtaking ... to some.

And the less observant might have seen their finale — the band's signature piece, "Cock-A-Doodle, I'm Off My Noodle," originally by Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks — as decisive proof that the band deeply understands and appreciates the "madcap" tradition in American dance music. Personal charisma and precise musical timing were the hallmark of great novelty bands like Spike Jones and his City Slickers and Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra. In the unlikeliest of venues, Grandma's Saggy Jug Band resurrects this tradition with intelligence, respect, skill, and genuinely funny showmanship. Or so some might think.

But I saw through that. Their rendition of "Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind" was an extremely close recreation of the New Lost City Rambler's version — to the extent it deviated from the Ramblers' recording, it was more danceable, more compelling, more fun. What a garish display — the Rambler's version was plenty danceable, compelling, and fun to begin with, I assure you.

Most damning of all, their ... over-determined ethnomimesis ... failed to resolve the very contradictions inherent in the semiotics of the, uh, signs they were ... signifying. Their very Bernoulli Effect elutriated their own mycotoxicosis!

One year can make a world of difference, of course, so we'll see how this year's winners fair next year. We'll see if the fledgling Old Town School of Folk Music can withstand the treatment The Hump Night Thumpers might — or might not — receive from the Minneapolis blogging community.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 12 of our attempt to post something or other every day during the entire month of February. That's about 28 times the posting rate usually maintained around these parts.

 


Countdown to the Battle of the Jug Bands

The Celestial Monochord
(my card)


Alright, now that the Super Bowl is over, America can focus on its more pressing business — The Annual Battle of the Jug Bands!

As I described earlier, it takes place at the Cabooze in Minneapolis on the first Sunday after every Super Bowl Sunday, which I'm told was yesterday (I watched the Puppy Bowl instead).  Like the equinoxes and solstices, the Battle of the Jug Bands will continue to happen on that Sunday even after the cockroaches have long ago taken over the world. 

And that's fine with me. One night last June, my wife and I had martinis and frickles at the Town Talk Diner. Afterwards, we drove north up Hiawatha and took the 94 West exit to get back to our Uptown pad.  As you take that exit, you get a commanding view of the Cabooze, as if you were circling the bar in a helicopter.  At the sight of it, I was suddenly very wistful — I yearned for the Annual Battle of the Jug Bands and I wished it was February right then and there. February in Minnesota. And I wished this in June.

The first year I attended The Battle, there was a jug band that had a toddler in its line-up.  She was maybe 2, I guess, and during each song she sat on stage trying to out-shout the band with her high-pitched babbling. I believe she was singing.  In any case, the sound almost exactly reproduced that of the old Skillet Lickers recordings from the 1920's, with Gid Tanner singing his falsetto backup, all out of tune and off tempo.  It was uncanny, as if something long dead had inadvertently been brought back to life.

In 2007, the Battle will be a quarter century old and it's bigger than ever. And lately, it's actually evolved into a real competition. For a long time, the 20 or so bands that competed over the 8-hour show were really more like 10 bands, with a lot of promiscuous recombination going on to make it seem like more bands.  But the last two years, more real bands entered the competition than the Battle could accommodate, and they literally put names into a hat and randomly chose the entrants. 
 
The judging has changed a bit, too. Now — for the first time — last year's winning jug band chooses this year's panel of judges. I gave those so-called "winners" multiple copies of my card at last year's Battle, but they still have not contacted me. And, well ... I will most definitely be judging them anyway, believe you me.

This year's winners be forewarned: Choose me as thy judge, lest ye be judged with a can of genuine Celestial Monochord whoop-ass!

See you there ...

 

Editor's Note: This must be the hundredth installment ... no, wait, it's the 5th installment of The Celestial Monochord's attempt to post one entry every day for an entire month. What was I thinking???

 


Battle of the Jug Bands, 2006

Battlelist

For the past 24 years, on every first Sunday after Super Bowl Sunday, a jug band competition has been held at the Cabooze, a bar in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis.

I discovered the Battle around 2001. In those days, my hatred of Minnesota was deep and corrosive, and it seemed my only choices were to leave the Twin Cities or burn them to the ground. But several years earlier, I'd become obsessed with old blues and folk music. The decision to finally go out into the February cold and check out the Battle of the Jug Bands seemed like a concession — it felt like finally sitting down at the negotiating table. The Battle became a part of giving myself permission to forgive Minnesota.

The organizers refuse to take it seriously. Like hockey's Stanley Cup, the winner's trophy travels with the winning band for a year and is engraved with the winner's name — but unlike the Stanely Cup, the trophy is a 1936 Holliwood brand waffle iron. A campy silliness pervades nearly everything about the proceedings — excepting some of the bands, the tortured souls of the overworked soundmen, and me. My contribution to the absurdity of the proceedings is to be Some Guy Who Takes This Seriously.

I'm blown away by the expansive repertoire delivered from the stage during the course of the Battle — songs that I once thought only I knew suddenly spring from college kids in silly costumes, and the audience knows the words. The Battle of the Jug Bands is like some kind of Return of the Repressed, a sign of something hidden away in the basements along the side streets of the Twin Cities.

Below are highlights of the notes I took at my barstool during The 2006 Battle of the Jug Bands. Obviously, this goes on much too long — but if you manage to read it all, imagine how much more stamina is needed to actually attend the eight-hour Battle.

---------------------

I arrived about four bands into the 23-band competition.

The Jug Refugees are called to the stage before most of their members have arrived. Spectators hop onto the stage to help fill in, further frustrating the sound guys. This ad hoc band struggles through a terrible version of Elizabeth Cotton's Shake Sugaree.

In the name of fairness, the Refugees are later given a second set, and do a much better "Wagon Wheel" by the Old Crow Medicine Show (and Dylan). After several songs, the juggist notices a little liquid at the bottom of his glass jug and eagerly chugs it down — only to realize it's his own saliva.

Gramdma's Saggy Jug Band. Five 20-somethings dressed as four grannies and one feller. They're great — the fiddler is very fine, and the band knows how essential a good rhythm section is to a jug band. (Too many bands make the mistake of handing the rhythm section over to the least experienced musicians.) They play washtub bass, washboard, fiddle, parlor guitar, jug, and kitchen implements. Their repertoire is on the obscure side — the Mississippi Sheik's "Please Baby," Cannon's Jug Stompers "Pig Ankle Strut," an old radio duet they heard reissued somewhere, and "Cock-A-Doodle, I'm Off My Noodle" by Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks.

To me, each member of Grandma's Saggy Jug Band seems to inhabit a distinct character — not just relying on their costume — and the characters get developed in little exchanges between songs. I interview them off-stage and it turns out they work mostly as puppeteers (which makes sense, given their theatrical vividness) at Bedlam Studio on the West Bank, where the group is best known for their annual Halloween show. They hadn't been especially familiar with the Battle of the Jug Bands before that night.

Bacon Equity. Looks like a family operation — washtub, tuba, tenor banjo, banjo ukulele, harmonica, toy accordion (played by Dad?). The first song is brilliant, like James Brown and Tom Waits with a jug attack. The crowd catches on to the band's reggae/funk influence, and some on the dance floor love it, go nuts. About four frat boys in the back wearing their baseball caps backward hate what they hear, and start calling for the hook. (They don't understanding that the hook is used on bands that go seriously over their time limit, not for bands that the audience hates). They chant "HOOK! HOOK! HOOK!" I shout at the band, "A little too black for these crackers!" Bacon Equity's tuba player is a young girl, and she's fearless, tireless, pumps out a great groove. They're given an encore — they add two saxophones and a Middle Eastern flavor, pouring gasoline on the frat-boys' fire. God love 'em. A boy with a saxophone, maybe 14 years old, goads the crowd (in the hip-hop and reggae fashion) to stamp their feet, sing along, clap hands. Incredible chaos ensues.

The Fat Chance Jug Band has a regular gig on Wednesday nights and is surprisingly bad compared to these amateurs. They remind the audience that "when you hear the tornado siren tests, you know it's jug day!"

Hump Night Thumpers (humpnightthumpers.com) from Chicago are clearly professionals, and not just because they have a website. They're "genuine revivalists," if such a thing is possible, and understand the jug band concept. They do the old "Hey lordy mama mama, hey lordy papa papa, talk about that Mobile line" and The Memphis Jug Band's "What's the Matter?" Jerri Wagner, who's a good singer, a good juggist, and attractive, takes the stage wearing a strip of tape across her chest, like the banners worn by women at beauty contests. It reads "Police Line: Do Not Cross" — not a bad idea at the Cabooze. Sings "Rag Mama."

Mighty Wind Breakers. The band leader is extremely picky with the sound guys during set-up. No wonder — their sound turns out to be very sumptuous, all atmosphere and spaciness. They have a plinky aimless xylophone, harmonica, fiddle ... they sketch the outlines of complex polyrhythms, which is lovely, but not right for this crowd. The frat boys chant "Hook! Hook! Hook!" but their lyrics are intended to be calming Ken Nodine-like mantras — "Love life, give life, give love, live long, long live, long life," blah blah blah.

Jook Savages. Always a high point, transcendent. Their leader looks exactly like Carl "Oldy" Olsen from Conan O'Brien, but is named Dave Morton. Huge band (19+ members), so it takes forever to set up. Morton pays no attention, just eventually starts singing and playing guitar. The band eventually realizes what's happening and, ready or not, assembles some kind of sound around him. Completely mad, but with a great, heavy rhythm — bass saxophone and at least 3 jug players. Morton then suddenly starts singing a different song, and the sound falls apart (not that it was ever very together) until the band can figure out what he's singing and the sound reassembles itself as best it can. The performance basically amounts to an endless medley, like a drumming circle, undifferentiated and somehow basically coherent. Average band member's age about ... 54?

At some point, my wife drops by the Cabooze and informs me that Dick Cheney has just shot a guy during a hunting trip. I spend the rest of the night informing other people, and they treat me like I'm handing out $100 bills.

At least three excellent, young jug bands take the stage in the last third of the Battle — The Como Avenue Jug Band, The World's Fattest Twins, and The Hog Town Stompers. For the first time in my experiences at the Battle of the Jug Band, I begin to get confused and puzzled over who might win possession of the waffle iron. The Hog Town Stompers are very fine, tight, and danceable — but will they win? There is too much else happening here — and just what exactly IS happening here? A revival, as I keep reminding you.

I talk to a couple who has been to every one of the Battles since 1982. I ask them how it's changed over the years, and they reply in unison: "It's gotten bigger!"

The night ends with Kazooie Okie, which consists of five kazooists and one washboard player. In fact, he surely must be among the best washboard players on Earth — Mikkel Beckmen, well-known in the Twin Cities as the washboardist for such great acts as Charlie Parr, Lonesome Dan Kase and the Crush Collision Trio, and The Brass Kings. What the hell is he doing with these clowns?

The kazoo orchestra begins their set with "25 or 6 to 4" from Chicago's Greatest Hits. Next, they do "My Girl" by The Temptations and wrap up with "I Feel Good" by James Brown. Actually, it's surprising how well it comes off, although the assistance of Mr. Beckmen is much needed.

Afterwards, I ask Mikkel how he got roped into this — did he owe somebody money? He just shrugs and says, "When they told me they were gunna do some James Brown, that was good enough for me."

 


Black Jug Bands: K. C. Moan

As I said before, some lines in the old songs seem to just keep ringing on and on in my head, providing hours of pleasurable work.

Take "K. C. Moan" from 1929, by the Memphis Jug Band. You have to hear it for yourself — the sound they achieve is sweet and relaxed and floating, but also very down-homey, mournful, and weighty.

"K.C." refers to a train on the Kansas City train line. I think it's a prison song, maybe a convict worksong. The first stanza goes:

I thought I heard that K.C. when she blowed
I thought I heard that K.C. when she blowed
I thought I heard that K.C. when she blowed
She blowed like my woman’s on board

The singer is not hearing the sound of the Kansas City train whistle. He is remembering a time in the past when he mistakenly thought he heard that train whistle. This imagined train did not have the woman he loves aboard — the sound he remembers having thought he heard was the sound a train might have made if it did carry the woman he loves.

Love, pleasure, freedom are removed from the here-and-now on one level after another, after another — deferred into desire, imagination, and memory.

Listening to this recording always reinvigorates that maybe too-familiar poem Langston Hughes wrote, I think in 1950:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


Black Jug Bands

Menphisjug

There's so much to say about jug bands (believe it or not), it's hard to know where to begin. Why not start with my own first impression — the thing that first made me realize there's much more to the story than I thought.

Before my interest in old music, I'd thought string bands with jug accompaniment were a white thing — a really white thing. Well, don't believe everything you see on the Andy Griffith Show, I guess. I purchased a two-volume compilation of early jug bands and was surprised to find that virtually all the performers were black ... really black.

And although it's turned out that the African American experience in the South in, say, the 1920's was much more rural than I'd imagined (being a northerner), jug band music is an exception — the jug bands recorded in the 1920's were usually urban, black, and southern. A few of these records do "sound rural" to me, but to that extent, these urban bands seem to be either making fun of country life, or tapping into a nostalgia for it.

I should also mention that the level of artistry was often extremely fine.

The whole thing is ... well, not what I had expected.