The Prejudice Against Jug Band Music

Jug band music began as street-corner busking, where performers soon learned that the novelty of blowing on a ceramic jug, kazoo or harmonica grew larger crowds than the more sophisticated picking on banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars by their more dignified blues colleagues.

But even within the African-American music community of the Jim Crow South, jazz musicians looked down on the blues musicians who looked down on the jug-band buskers.

As often happens, the folks at the bottom of the totem pole played with more spirit and freedom than those at the top. The same need to draw a crowd encouraged not only novelty instruments but also ear-grabbing tunes and theatrical lyrics. You can hear that free spirit in the Memphis Jug Band’s 1928 On the Road Again, featuring the guitar and lead vocal of Will Shade.

Flemons learned to play the jug by studying a Fritz Richmond performance in the movie Festival and now uses it in nearly every show and recording session. As such he is part of a nascent second jug band revival. Since leaving the group he co-founded, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons has continued to explore pre-World War II music. Flemons doesn’t so much revive old tunes as he reincarnates them. He’s not trying to evoke an earlier time; he’s using a format he believes will help him talk to this time. The best jug-band revivalists have always been those with the same attitude.

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