Battle of the Jug Bands fed by local revival of homespun music
By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune
When building a banjo using just a coffee can, some wood and a string, your choices for the body may come down to this: Folgers, Maxwell House or Trader Joe’s.
“I found that the Trader Joe’s coffee cans work pretty well,” said Jonas Friddle. The “canjo” he plays with his band, the Barehand Jugband, may look silly, but heads turn when he uses a resonator plug to connect it to a distortion pedal and amp.
Welcome to the jug band renaissance, where the ingredients may differ some from those nearly 90 years ago, but the appeal remains the same: musicians who play without pretense, are interested in the earliest roots of blues and country, and who appreciate the homemade approach to making music.
Six bands from Chicago will compete at Morseland in Rogers Park Saturday night in the second annual Battle of the Jug Bands. The award is nominal, to say the least — an antique sausage press bolted to a plaque — but the competition is not.
Last year, the club had lines that trailed down the block — quite a surprise for the simple, homegrown music that goes against pretty much every trend in today’s media-frenzied world.
“The music has such a heavy emphasis on enjoyment — it’s extremely fun music to play and it’s extremely sociable,” said Friddle, 27, who will perform at the competition with two separate bands and who teaches jug band music at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “You can make it as hard or as easy as you want to.”
If the recent jug band movement in Chicago can be summed up in a single person, it is Arlo Leach, 36. The Iowa native moved to Chicago in 1998 and began studying and then teaching jug band music, which originated in the urban South in the 1920s. It was made popular in cities like Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., during the golden age of jazz.
Because jug bands were primarily street buskers, they were forced to have a highly energetic playing style, sometimes fitting in familiar vaudeville routines between songs.
The homemade aspect of the music was also a product of its time. Poverty, and later the Depression, forced musicians to create a banjo out of a coffee can, make an upright bass out of a washtub or suitcase, and replace the low, time-keeping huffs of a tuba with a whiskey jug. Kazoos and washboards were added, and horns could be replicated by savvy finger manipulations and a lungful of air.
Leach said he became enamored with the music through CD reissues, which captured the informal magic of early live performances.
“I liked how enthusiastic the guys on the original recordings are. They’re just shouting and talking to each other — maybe they don’t know when the verse is to come in on and maybe they all sing different words while they’re laughing. I like how the whole idea is that the energy of the music is more important than a perfect execution of the song,” he said.
Leach’s conversion led him to teach the music at the Old Town School; his ensemble — The Hump Night Thumpers (the class is on Wednesday nights) — became so proficient that it won the national Battle of the Jug Bands held in Minneapolis since 1980.
He formed the Chicago competition to follow up a benefit concert he organized early last year to raise money for a tombstone for Will Shade, a seminal figure in the Memphis scene who, Leach discovered, was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave outside Memphis. Since then he helped organize a benefit concert for Earl McDonald, another early player buried in an unmarked grave in Louisville, Ky.
Jug band music has quietly become part of the Chicago music scene, with bands playing off nights at snug neighborhood venues like the Hideout along the Elston Avenue Industrial Corridor, Small Bar in Logan Square and the Red Line Tap in Rogers Park.
Besides the class at the Old Town School, local musicians and others interested in jug band music also can easily access the repertoire, playing styles and history through extensive reissue recordings. Previous generations did not have that advantage, especially during the early 1960s when the last jug band revival took place.
There also is experimentation. In addition to the different types of instruments and homemade contraptions used to fill out the sound, some bands are borrowing from other genres and using costumes and songs from swing band classics, bluegrass and other traditional American music.
One band, The Schticklers, promotes itself as the only all-Jewish jug band in Chicago. It plays klezmer as well as jug band traditional songs. Leader Barb Silverman, 59, who plays washboard and guitar, said that forcing both genres to work together is not far-fetched.
“All the roots music seems to cross over a bit. Klezmer music, which uses clarinet and fiddle, has a certain sound that is not dissimilar from old jug bands that use horn, washboard and banjo,” she said. “The genre starts to blur after a while.”
The bands battling Saturday will be working to dethrone last year’s winner, the Blue Ribbon Jug Band. Andy Carlson, 31, who plays harmonica, guitar, banjo and jug in the band, admits their victory may have had something to do with the band renting a trolley the day of the competition to pick up supporters in Chicago neighborhoods.
Considering that the audience decides the winners, it was a savvy move.
Carlson said Chicago’s jug band revival does not just provide local musicians a fun way to play together and learn new music, but also contributes to the endurance of the music, which might otherwise be marginalized.
“Here’s this American music, which is indigenous to our country. It’s got this mix of cool instruments and songs,” he said. “I like the idea that in our own way, we are keeping it alive.”
The second annual Battle of the Jug Bands will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at Morseland, 1218 W. Morse Ave. $7 cover. For more information, go to morseland.com.