A happy Sunday & a happy Boxing Day. Although it was much delayed, it’s now time for the last run on the Old-Time Holiday Train, so let’s get on board with a couple of great tunes!
The Memphis Jug Band: K.C. Moan (1929)
Is there anything quite like jug band music? A sound that hovers between the blues & hot jazz, with any number of other elements thrown in—& to top it off, a “homemade,” “do it yourself” aesthetic that can rival even the most punk of punk rock bands. After all, by definition, jug bands use “found” instruments , starting with the jug itself, & continuing thru washboard bass, tissue & comb kazoo, bones, & even homemade guitars, mandolins & banjos. Gus Cannon of Cannon’s Jug Stompers learned the banjo on an instrument made from a frying pan & a raccoon skin, & while Cannon played a more conventional instrument by the time he was a known musician, there are records of jug band musicians playing pie plate banjos & gourd guitars.
The Memphis Jug Band was a very loose confederation of musicians gathered around Will Shade, who sang, wrote songs, & played guitar & harmonica. The group at various times included musicians who also had significant solo careers, such as Memphis Minnie & Casey Bill Weldon. “K.C. Moan” is a wonderfully straightforward blues song that was later covered by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers: White House Blues (1926)
Speaking of a tune that mixes genres, we end this season’s holiday train tour with the “White House Blues.” These days the “White House Blues” is considered a “bluegrass” or “old-time” tune, in the sense that it comes thru the Euro-American old-time tradition. But structurally, “The White House Blues” is as much a “blues” as “K.C. Moan,” even if it isn’t given the syncopated inflection we generally associate with blues & other forms of African-American music. It wouldn’t be hard to adapt the song to that kind of treatment, however, especially given the underlying 12-bar blues structure.
“The White House Blues” is itself an adaptation of an earlier song, “The Battleship of Maine.” The latter is a satirical song of Spanish-American War vintage, & it provided the melody for its equally topical descendant. For those who are interested, the New Lost City Ramblers covered “The Battleship of Maine,” & you can hear a live version of that here.
Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers were a popular string band of the 1920s, & their music certainly has an eduring appeal. Poole played banjo & developed a three-finger picking style that provided rhythmic drive to the band. By the way, in banjo (& guitar) terms “three-finger” means “thumb, index & middle fingers”—despite what your 1st grade teacher told you about the “thumb not being a finger.” Although modern bluegrass banjoists use three-finger patterns based on those developed by Earl Scruggs, Poole’s patterns were less syncopated.
Hope you enjoy “The White House Blues!”