Sunday, October 18, 2015
This neat little 10" LP of early recordings by the Dixieland Jug Blowers and the Memphis Jug Band was issued on RCA Victor's short-lived "X" label in 1954. It is comprised of eight recordings first released on Victor 78s between 1926 and 1928 and surely represents some of the earliest serious interest in such material.
Original liner notes:
In recent years, considerable attention has been focused on the African origins of American jazz. The how and how much of African influences and direct carry-overs will undoubtedly continue to be investigated and debated for quite some time, particularly since anthropologists and musicologists in more than a few universities have now begun to be fascinated by the intricate mystery of the roots of jazz.
One important obstacle to proper documentation of such studies has been, inevitably, the scarcity of actual recordings that can serve to illustrate and substantiate theory. In some areas from which slaves were first brought to this country, time has apparently stood almost still; field recordings there can show source music in something very much like “pure” form. But in the half-century since jazz first took definite and recognizable shape, life in America has moved and altered at great speed. Even by the early 1920’s, when jazz first began to be recorded to any appreciable extent, the music had taken strides that made it far from easy to connect it directly with Africa, or to see just what role should be assigned to that continent in sorting out the many different influences on jazz: some European, some perhaps entirely attributable to white and Negro American patterns of life, others undoubtedly African.
There are records that can be considered as the look-for “missing links” in the picture. But they are extremely rare; it has been many years since they were readily available, and they tend to be overlooked by, or perhaps to be unknown to, even the serious student of jazz. This is unfortunate for more than one reason—as the music of these jug bands should clearly indicate.
For these numbers are not at all like any dry history lesson you ever heard. More than anything else, they are strong, exciting, imaginative, uninhibited, highly rhythmical jazz performances. But even the “legitimate” instruments here are used in comparatively primitive fashion, and prominently included is such non-standard equipment as kazoo and jug. It seems to call for no great stretching of the imagination to find the ancestors of some of these in the instruments used in the tribal music of West and Central Africa.
Take the jug itself, the key instrument in these groups, which is usually of the familiar earthenware variety. One anthropologist, Alan P. Merriam of Northwestern University, has noted great similarities in playing technique between it and the menda, a clay jug to be found in the Congo: “The player blows into the mouth of the menda, producing a deep tone, on the accented beats; on unaccented beats he draws in his breath sharply, producing a high, clear tone.” The American Negro’s quite early use of the banjo may be attributable to its similarity to African stringed instruments, including one made of animal skin stretched across a wood frame. The violins that are played here in strictly “alley fiddle” style may be traceable back to African violins that were long ago derived, in turn, from the Arabian rebec; and eVen the kazoo, played entirely by breathing into it, may be related to the side-blown gourd of tribal music.
It would of course be misleading over-simplification to carry such comparisons too far, and to present these records as anything like pure “Africanism.” Although they reflect backgrounds of jazz, they are themselves, in a sense, anachronisms. Far from being among the earliest of records, they were made in the late ‘20’s, when a number of bands much like these were playing for Negro audiences. But these musicians appear to have been influenced only slightly by the more conventional jazz bands of the day. Essentially, they are playing the music of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation, on the same instruments and in the same style. The indications are that they were descended from slaves and freed slaves who went into the rural, “backwoods” areas of the deep South, and there retained much of their earlier way of life. They played primarily in Tennessee and Kentucky, far from what are generally regarded as the beaten paths of jazz; they may have been no more than part-time entertainers. If they came into the big cities to play and record at times, they nevertheless resisted being absorbed to any great extent into the main-stream of 1920’s jazz, and thus their stomps and blues remain far closer than most to being classifiable as source music, as a survival of the pre-jazz music of a less “Americanized” people.
Little is known of the identities of these men. The probable personnel listed for the Dixieland Jug Blowers is based on the belief that this group was at least in part made up of members of Clifford Hayes’ Louisville Stompers (a conclusion reached partly through aural evidence, partly because members of the Stompers are credited as composers of Jug Blowers tunes, and also because Hayes is known to have directed at least some Jug Blowers recording sessions). And it’s interesting to note that their Banjoreno tosses in a strong dose of a very different pre-jazz source, with a banjo style (featuring no less than three banjos) that is clearly linked to minstrel-show music. The Memphis Jug Band is even less identifiable, although they are known to have made a substantial quantity of recordings, beginning with the date that produced three of their numbers here.
The above note were of course written before the folk revival of the late fifties and early sixties aroused interest in such groups and their recordings; biographies of both the Dixieland Jug Blowers (click here) and the Memphis Jug Band (click here) are widely available.
1. Dixieland Jug Blowers-Southern Shout
2. Dixieland Jug Blowers-Banjorena
3. Dixieland Jug Blowers-Boodle-Am Shake
4. Dixieland Jug Blowers-National Blues
5. Memphis Jug Band-Stingy Woman Blues
6. Memphis Jug Band-Newport News Blues
7. Memphis Jug Band-Sun Brimmers Blues
8. Memphis Jug Band-Overseas Stomp