An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
09 March, 2010
"Newport Blues" - Cincinnati Jug Band
Set Two: Social Music; Disc One; Track Thirteen: "Newport Blues" performed by Cincinnati Jug Band. "Harmonica, jug, guitar" Recorded in Chicago in January, 1929. Original issue Paramount 12743A (21100-2).
Guitarist Bob Coleman was reportedly born near the Georgia-Alabama border in 1906. Bob Coleman and his younger brother Walter (born in 1908) settled in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1920s and became fixtures on the rowdy George Street scene. During this period, they began working with Sam Jones, aka Stovepipe No.1, with whom Bob made his first recordings in 1928 for Vocalion. When he made his first recordings for Paramount in January, 1929, Bob Coleman reportedly brought his brother Walter with him. Studio records only mention Bob Coleman on guitar, but if it is true that Walter was present at the session, it is likely that he's playing the harmonica. As for the jug, there is speculation that Coleman might have re-teamed with Sam Jones, a one-man-band who earned his nickname, Stovepipe No.1, by playing the stovepipe. The stovepipe is not a musical instrument, but is a real stovepipe that is played in a manner similar to the jug, making it likely that Jones is the jug-player heard here.
The Coleman brothers made a second recording for Paramount in 1930 and then recorded for Decca in 1936. Shortly after the Decca session, Walter Coleman was reported dead at the age of 29. No cause of death was listed, but it has been speculated that his early death might have been caused by the rough environs of George Street, which was Cincinnati's red-light district during this period. Bob Coleman never recorded again. He died of unknown causes in 1966. By the time of Bob Coleman's death, George Street no longer existed, having been destroyed to make way for an interstate.
The jug as a musical instrument likely began to be played during the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Its use in folk music became relatively widespread due to the fact that the jug was a found object and was commonplace. It is likely that people started playing the jug for the same reason they started using turntables and records as musical instruments during the 1970s: Because the first practitioners did not have other musical instruments available, likely for economic reasons. It speaks to the indomitable nature of the human spirit that when musical instruments are not around, people will make music out of virtually anything handy when the desire to make music strikes.
The jug is literally a vessel for holding liquids, usually made of ceramic or glass. It is played by holding the jug about an inch from the lips while the lips produce a buzzing sound, similar to the sound made by brass players. As with brass instruments, alterations in pitch are achieved by varying the tightness of the mouth. It is important to note that the jug player does not blow across the opening, as one does when producing a tone from a bottle, nor does the players mouth actually touch the neck. The sound is produced by the player's lips, with the jug acting as a resonating chamber. An accomplished jug player can have up to a two-octave range. The jug usually plays the bass-line and is considered to be part of the jug band's rhythm section, although jug solos are common.
In his notes, Smith points out that "blowing across a small opening in a closed vessel to produce a musical sound is widely used in North and South America, the West Indies, and Africa."
Jug bands can be made up of any number of instruments, but the classic jug band lineup consists of other home-made instruments, such as comb-and-tissue paper (or kazoo), the washtub bass, the spoons, and the washboard.
Jug bands reached the height of their popularity during the 1920s, predominately among African-Americans. Although no information exists that specifies the Coleman brothers' race, it is extremely likely - given that they lived and performed in a predominately black area and played in the jug band idiom - that they were African-American.
The jug band experienced a considerable revival during the folk boom of the late '50s and early '60s. 78 RPM record collector Joe Bussard performed as a member of numerous jug bands during this period (such as Jolly Joe's Jug Band) and recorded them on his Fonotone record label. In some cases, bands that became folk rock or even psychedelic rock bands started out as jug bands, such as the Lovin' Spoonful and the Grateful Dead. As with the revival of Dixieland Jazz, the jug band revivalists were almost always white and middle class.
"Newport Blues" marks the first appearance by a jug band on the Anthology, but it would not be the last.
No information on "Newport Blues" is available, and it is likely that the song was an original by Bob Coleman. Its inclusion here is likely as an illustration of the popularity of jug bands as dance bands during this period. After five recordings that feature vocals, "Newport Blues" is an entirely instrumental performance. The record begins with the bass-line performed on the jug. The guitar and harmonica immediately enter, with the guitar accompanying the jug on rhythm and the harmonica playing the melody. The song is brisk and up-tempo. In his notes, Smith points out that the "line played by the jug in this recording seems to represent an earlier and more inland style than the evenly spaced bass chords heard on recordings made in Memphis."
For more information on the harmonica, see the entry for "Stackalee."
The Shameless Plug Department: The fourth episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast is still the most recent. It is my intention to do a fifth episode in the near future, although for the time being I am busy acting in the Capital Repertory Theatre production of To Kill A Mockingbird. As soon as I have more time, you can rest assured that I will do a new episode of the podcast. In the meantime, you can listen to this all-blues episode where you'll hear New Year's greetings from Lightin' Hopkins and Mary Harris, as well as Delta Blues by Son House, Willie Brown and Charlie Patton. You'll also hear recordings by more obscure figures like Geeshie Wiley, Blind Joe Reynolds, William Harris, and more. Also available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you don't miss a single episode. It's free and it doesn't hurt. Who can ask for more?
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Here's an excellent example of folk-revival jug band playing. This is The Jim Kweskin Jug Band featuring a young, fetching Maria Muldaur on vocal (a long way from the Oasis) performing a brief snippet of "I Ain't Gonna Marry."