Sunday, December 26, 2010

Old Time Holiday Train #4

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!”


  1. More Old Glories! I started my playing in a jug band so much time and student grant were spent in the only US import record shop in London bringing in folk, blues and jazz, the legendary Collett's in New Oxford Street. And 'K.C. Moan' was one of our first numbers.

  2. Hi Dick: Now that sounds like fun! Thanks.


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