Yesterday morning out here in our little corner of paradise was, in a word (& a good New England word for weather at that) brutal: 4 degrees Fahrenheit, & thick fog at 7:30 a.m. when I headed up the road toward Donnelly. The temperature sank to –7 (still with thick fog) by the time I passed the Tamarack sawmill which stands beside the Little Salmon River. The small settlement of Tamarack bears no relationship to the Tamarack resort outside of Donnelly. Tho the latter establishment made national news when Bush visited there (the highlight was some hapless pilot who wandered into “forbidden airspace” & was escorted down to Council airport), the resort has now fallen into bankruptcy & receivership, a victim not only of the national economic disaster, but also of Idaho’s endemic boom & bust cycle. The mill on the other hand is still belching white smoke from its cogen furnace, surrounded by hills that turn golden with the tamarack needles themselves turning golden in the fall.
By the time I entered McCall (around 5,200 feet) the sun was glaring wildly off the snow—but this was short lived. The last leg found me in the fog again. It’s been that sort of January. Fortunately, I had some great tunes to listen to—lots of banjo & lots of kazoo, which ought to brighten anyone’s day.
Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Best of Cannon’s Jug Stompers (Yazoo)
1. Feather Bed
2. Last Chance Blues
3. Big Railroad Blues
4. Going To Germany
5. Minglewood Blues
6. Mule Get Up In The Alley
7. Viola Lee Blues
8. Walk Right In
9. Noah's Blues
10. Wolf River Blues
11. Riley's Wagon
13. Madison Street Rag
14. Bring It With You When You Come
15. The Rooster's Crowing Blues
16. Pig Ankle
17. Money Never Runs Out
18. Heart Breakin' Blues
19. Springdale Blues
20. Jonestown Blues
21. Prison Wall Blues
22. Ripley Blues
23. Tired Chicken Blues
24.Pretty Mama Blues
Greil Marcus coined the term “weird old America” when he wrote about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music; the Jug Stompers (who appear on the Anthology doing their wild rendition of “Minglewood Blues”) certainly come from this musically mythic place. The instrumentation: banjo, guitar, harmonica, kazoo, & jug; the vocals are often haunting.
Gus Cannon was a man who grew up in the late 19th century & who assimilated the string band music of his youth. It’s interesting to consider that this man who played a type of music often imitated by various folk & old-time revivalists was himself a revivalist of sorts when he & the Jug Stompers were playing in the ‘teens & 1920s. Although Cannon played several instruments, he concentrated on banjo & the jug with the Jug Stompers. The jug is a singular musicmaker—"homemade," of course, & with all the baggage of not being a “real instrument” that it shares with such wondrous devices as tissue paper & comb (or even the “store-bought” version of same, the kazoo), the washboard & the washtub bass. In fact, the prejudice toward high-end, manufactured instruments (& hey, we like those kind of instruments, too!) obscures the fact that in capable hands the jug or kazoo, etc. all are capable of making wonderful music. As evidence of both jug & kazoo: check out the cut “Whoa Mule, Get Up in the Alley” on this album. The jug itself is omnipresent & provides an amazing bass.
Cannon hooked up with ferociously melodic harp player Noah Lewis, who also sang some (e.g., “Big Railroad Blues”); Cannon & Lewis started playing with singer/guitarist Ashley Thompson, & this became the original line-up for Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Thompson was later replaced, first by Elijah Avery & then by Hosea Woods.
Along with the Memphis Jug Band, the Jug Stompers are probably the best-known of the early jug bands; they were an inspiration to later practitioners of this weird & wonderful music like Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (a fun & recommended band, also noteworthy for featuring Maria Muldaur back when she was Maria D’Amato). Cannon’s Jug Stompers also were an inspiration to the Grateful Dead, who covered the earlier band’s “Viola Lee Blues” (a close musical cousin to “Joliet Bound”) & “Big Railroad Blues.” In fact, if you’re running a Google search on Cannon’s Jug Stompers the first site that comes up is a Dead Head page discussing not only the earlier band, but also various Grateful Dead versions of these two songs. Say what you will about the Grateful Dead (I haven’t listened to them in years myself): they had fantastic taste in old music. Finally, many of us decidedly middle-aged types will recall the Rooftop Singers’ cover of the Jug Stompers “Walk Right In.”
This is a fantastic album—a look into a style of music that was a vital part of the roots of much that we know in popular music today, & even of styles we think of as themselves “roots” or “old-time.” This is the blues, but it’s not the blues of Muddy Waters or B.B. King. It is the “weird old America.”
R.D. Lunceford: Cotton Blossom (Ceilidh Brothers Music)
1. Green Corn/Sandy Boys
2. Alabama Joe/Jenny Get Your Hoecake Done
3. Where You Goin’ Rabbit?/Rye Straw
4. The Battle of Waterloo
5. Nellie Gray/When You & I Were Young Maggie
6. Jim Along, Josie/Polly Put the Kettle On
7. Old Stepstone
8. Run Rabbit Run/John Bowlin’s Walkaround/Cornstalk Fiddle
9. Old Jim Wren
10. Cripple Creek/Sourwood Mountain
11. West Virginia Gals
12. Last Chance
13. Charleston Girls/Grapevine Twist
15. Bee Gum Road/Old Jimmy Sutton
16. Unsworth’s New Jig/There Was an Old Soldier
17. The Yellow Rose of Texas/Dixie
18. Over the Mountain
20. Lonesome John/Texas
21. The Minstrel Boy
Banjo Newsletter editor & gifted banjo frailer has issued two albums of clawhammer tunes, Cotton Blossom & Drop Thumb. For you non-banjoists out there, the latter title doesn’t refer to some medical condition, but to a technique used in old-time banjo styles allowing the thumb to produce melody notes. Cotton Blossom is the album I was listening to yesterday, however, & a real treat it was, too. The repertoire Lunceford presents ranges from very familiar old-time tunes such as “Cripple Creek” & “Needlecase” to more obscure selections such as “Bee Gum Reel” & “Old Stepstone, & even includes two tunes not associated with the banjo: “Greensleeves” & “The Minstrel Boy.”
Lunceford’s frailing is vigorous, with a lot of rhythmic drive. To my ear at least, his rhythm is a bit more straight-ahead than Mary Z Cox’s (whose Secret Life of Banjo was on the playlist a couple of weeks ago), but his playing would easily propel dancers. One thing that really struck me about Lunceford: you can tell he’s a “purty good” player (as he describes himself at the Banjo Hangout—in fact, a very good player), with lots of technique at his disposal, but he uses that technique to put the tune across—too often, some talented players do the opposite, which is never pleasing to my ear. I think the initial reaction to Lunceford’s playing is “What a great song that was,” because he doesn’t force you to think about his playing technique apart from the song itself.
There really aren’t any weak tracks on this album. The medley form works well in Lunceford’s playing; the transitions are seamless, but the tunes are each given a distinct & recognizable feel. Of course, Lunceford is capable of delightful variations, & he puts those to effective use throughout. For those who are interested in such things, Lunceford has issued a tab book to accompany this cd (& also one to accompany Drop Thumb). Although I haven’t seen either of these books, I suspect you’d learn a lot about arranging, & about these songs in general if you gave them a look.
The one moment that I balk at is “Dixie.” I realize there’s a movement amongst the old-time music set to resurrect this song; folks point out, for instance, that it was a favorite of Lincoln’s. I don’t say this to disparage Mr Lunceford in any way, & I certainly believe his motives in including the song are righteous enough—but as the song was playing, I drove past a trailer house where the mailbox was painted with the Confederate stars & bars. At the risk of offending readers from the South (which I don't intend to do—I lived in Virginia for several years & like the region) I’m not convinced this song can ever be separated from some of its negative connections….
But otherwise, the cd is fantastic (& the playing per se on “Dixie” is certainly fine). The version of “Greensleeves” & “The Minstrel Boy” are both very good, & far from “oh wow” novelties. In fact, Lunceford’s “The Minstrel Boy” would make a fine track at a St. Patrick’s Day party (for you out there with a bit of green blood in your veins). "Greensleeves" is quite lovely, & brings out some of the harpsichord-like tone of the banjo.
Red McKenzie: Red McKenzie, Vol. 1 (Sensation Records)
1. Arkansa Blues
2. Blue Blues
4. Red Hot!
5. Barb Wire Blues
6. You Ain't Got Nothin' I Want
7. Tiger Rag
8. Deep Second Street Blues
9. When My Sugar Walks Down the Street
11. Best Black
12. Stretch It, Boy
13. Gettin' Told
14. Play Me Slow
15. Wigwam Blues
16. Blues in F
17. The Morning After Blues
18. Happy Children Blues
19. Hot Honey
20. If You Never Come Back
21. What Do I Care If Somebody Said
22. Nervous Puppies
OK, we brought up kazoos & tissue paper & comb briefly in discussing Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Now we have the king of tissue paper & comb (your basic homemade kazoo), Red McKenzie. Because McKenzie’s music has to be heard to be believed, I’ve included a YouTube video of “Arkansa Blues,” one of McKenzie’s earliest sides. This song showcases McKenzie’s Mound City Blowers at their most “basic”—McKenzie on tissue paper & comb, Dick Slevin on kazoo & Jack Bland on tenor banjo. It’s a glorious hot jazz tune, & I love the liner notes to this cd in which James Kidd compares the ensemble to a “garage band.” It’s got that kind of élan & vitality.
But the Mound City Blowers were more than a novelty act. They recorded with renowned saxophonist Frank Trumbauer & also with early jazz guitar legend Eddie Lang (both Trumbauer & Lang appear on this album—the latter actually plays on at least a dozen cuts). Famed jazz banjoist Harry Reser also sat in with the Mound City Blowers. The selection on this album ranges from obscure tunes to hot jazz standards like “Tiger Rag,” “San” & “Panama.” The interplay with Trumbauer’s sax on “San” is a real treat, & the Blowers also do a fine “Tiger Rag” with Lang on guitar.
I know it takes some convincing to get folks to believe that instruments such as the humble kazoo or even humbler tissue paper & comb are truly “musical,” but they are. Just as Hezzie Trietsch could make amazing music on the slide whistle with the Hoosier Hot Shots or Gus Cannon could provide unforgettable bass lines on the jug, so too could McKenzie & Slevin create swinging & inventive melodies on their instruments of choice. & because the kazoo is near to our heart, I’ll be providing some background on this instrument in a post on Sunday. I hope you take that as an intriguing invitation, but if not, at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
As always, hope these selections may direct some of you to some new sounds.