The jug band may be the quintessential expression of the Memphis music underground, of giving the power to the people. Jug band instruments can be made from household objects: some jugs held corn whiskey, some coal oil or turpentine, but no matter its purpose, every home had a jug. The bass was built from a washtub, broom handle, and scrap baling wire or rope, and those who couldn’t afford a kazoo could usually find scraps of wax paper and put that over a comb for an instant horn section. Even the stringed instrument could be built from a pie plate and other kitchen items, though a guitar, banjo, ukulele or fiddle was preferred. The jug band’s existence is a statement that anything can be made musical, and anyone can make music.
The Memphis Jug Band, led by Will Shade, was a rotating group of musicians who made more than 60 recordings for Victor Records between 1927 and 1932, and continued to record into the 1950s, well after the jug’s heyday. Their body of work has inspired folk, rock and pop bands from the 1960s to the present.
The Memphis Jug Band’s home was Beale Street, a most appropriate location since jug band music is party music and the Beale neighborhood was the South’s Harlem. A patch of grass in the park, an alley alcove, a piece of sidewalk—the jug band could assemble instantaneously anywhere, and just as quickly a crowd would form. The players egged each other on, hooting during solos, wisecracking during lyrics, dancing salaciously and spreading good times. As the broom handle swayed and made the music go wang-a-wang, as the vocalists drew your spirit next to theirs, the hipbone slipped and the tips flew into a hat or a box, the crowd breaking into dance. When the street cop appeared swinging his billy club to disrupt the ruckus, the jug band could atomize among the dispersing crowd (the washtub player always had a plan).
Will Shade, a multi-instrumentalist and singer, grasped the jug band’s potential when he heard the Dixieland Jug Blowers from Louisville, Kentucky.
Shade — who also went by the name Son Brimmer — assembled the first version of the Memphis Jug Band around 1925, and they quickly were brought to the attention of Ralph Peer, the traveling talent scout who’d recorded Mamie Smith and Fiddlin’ John Carson (and would soon record the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers). The Memphis Jug Band made their first recordings in February 1927 (some sources say these were the first records ever recorded in Memphis). Memphis Minnie’s husband, who would soon achieve his own success as Casey Bill Weldon, shared guitar duties with Shade in the early days, and a couple years later the jug band backed Minnie on her first hit, “Bumble Bee Blues.”
The Memphis Jug Band sounded like a spontaneous, riotous good time but only because Will Shade rehearsed and drilled them. A genius on the washtub bass, Shade had a solid understanding of technology and a strong personal drive. His songs never had a problem fitting within the three-minute technological time limit, and though the banter seemed to be off the cuff, it and every note they played had been precisely worked out. Will Shade made the Memphis Jug Band a well-planned party that was always a good time. One of their biggest patrons was Mayor E.H. Crump, who often booked them at his home for parties.
As their personnel changed, so did their repertoire. Initially, they had a country blues focus (“Sun Brimmer’s Blues”), but quickly the sound expanded with the addition of guitarist Charlie Burse (who would join Shade as the band’s mainstay), Vol Stevens on banjo and soon Milton Robie on violin. The songs gained a pop patina (“Going Back To Memphis”), and the band could stretch into jazz, ragtime, and even hints of swing as that new sound arrived (“Gator Wobble,” with touches of hokum, is mighty fine listening, and “KC Moan” is another personal favorite). Vocal duties could be passed around, and often included Shade’s wife, the Beale Street beauty Jennie Clayton. But no matter the style, the spirit was always the same (even for the sad songs): Good times for all!
The jug band heyday crashed with the stock market, tips on the street shrinking to nothing. The fun remained, but the money was gone, and soon they were all working day jobs.
Shade had been on salary with Victor and even bought a house, but when times got bad, he lost both. By the 1960s, he was living in government housing at Fourth and Beale, still able to assemble a band within seconds, calling on his wife Jennie, neighbor Furry Lewis, vocalist and ukulele giant Little Laura Dukes, and other stars from the medicine shows and chitlin’ circuit who lived near Beale.
If the influence of the Memphis Jug Band is not obvious, consider that two of their songs were included by Harry Smith on his genre-defining Anthology of American Folk Music. The hippies got hip to the jug band and Shade’s group gained a new generation of fans, but he continued to know the blues: Will Shade didn’t get royalties, but his songs were recorded by a range of kids half his age.
The Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Dickinson, Dave Bromberg, and the North Mississippi All-Stars are among many who have cut “On the Road Again,” the Grateful Dead recorded “Stealin’ Stealin’” on their first album and that’s also been covered by Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and numerous others. Many people know songs that originated with the Memphis Jug Band, they just don’t know the source. When the sounds of modern music are traced from their pop music peaks to their roots, buried there at the bottom where it all started, deep but not forgotten, is the Memphis Jug Band.
When the sounds of modern music are traced from their pop music peaks to their roots, buried there at the bottom where it all started, deep but not forgotten, is the Memphis Jug Band.