Jim Kweskin to play Winston-Salem
Folk musician of jug-band fame continues digging American roots
When people think of folk musicians, singer-songwriters often come to mind. Jim Kweskin is a life-long folk musician, both a product of and a big name in the folk revival. Kweskin is known not for any songs he wrote — he’s not a songwriter — but for his masterful Piedmont-style guitar playing, his wide-ranging repertory, and his role in popularizing jug-band music to a new generation of listeners in the ‘60s. I spoke with Kweskin by phone earlier this week from his home in West Hollywood, California. Kweskin plays a solo show as part of the Fiddle & Bow Society’s programming at the Muddy Creek Music Hall on March 2.
“I think of myself as a songster, very much in the tradition of, though not as good as, Leadbelly and Mississippi John Hurt,” Kweskin said.
That means chasing interesting material, playing whatever songs catch his fancy, and giving them his own spin. It’s the essence of the folk process, taking what you find and putting your stamp on it.
Over the decades Kweskin has taken an interest in a broad range of American music. Not limiting himself to American music, but focusing on it. He fronted the Jim Kweskin Jug Band from about 1963 to 1968, releasing albums on Vanguard Records, performing at the Newport Folk Festival, appearing on T.V. variety shows and having some of the big names of the era serve as opening acts for his group. (The band featured Geoff Muldaur and Maria D’Amato, who later became Maria Muldaur, as well as washtub bassist and jug player Fritz Richmond.) Core surviving members of the group have gotten together for reunion tours in recent years as well. He went solo in the early ‘70s, and he’s been releasing records in a variety of configurations ever since.
Like many of the artists in the folk scene of the ‘60s era, Kweskin, 77, and crew took a lot of inspiration from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a monumental 1952 collection of recordings originally made in the ‘20s and ‘30s that served as a sort of founding document for the folk revival. (In addition to the blues, old-time, gospel and Cajun and many other strains of American music, Smith’s anthology featured jug-band music, perhaps most importantly, Gus Cannon’s Memphis Jug Stompers.)
In a way, it’s hard to fathom now, but jug-band music was a hugely influential part of the folk scene in the early ‘60s. The Grateful Dead, before the Acid Tests, and before they were the Warlocks, were a jug band. Texas psychedelic masters the 13th Floor Elevators were riffing, in their own way, on something started by the jug-band craze. (If you ever noticed crazed percolating rhythmic tooting going on the background of their records, it’s a guy blowing on a jug through an amp and effects.) A 2007 documentary film, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, delved into the history of jug-band music and featured Kweskin and his bandmates prominently. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a band operating in that tradition, giving African-American string-band and jug-band music a 21st Century iteration. And the music — as removed from the mainstream as it may seem, with instruments that sound boisterous and sometimes unrepentantly goofy — remains alive.
“Right now there are hundreds of jug-bands around the United States,” Kweskin said. “Some of them are really good.”
Incidentally, Kweskin’s most recent release is a solo album called Unjugged. Kweskin won’t have anyone tooting on a clay jug or thumping on a washtub bass when he plays Winston-Salem. “It’s gonna be me doing what I do,” he said.
What he does has always been to pull from all kinds of places. And part of the reason Kweskin was drawn to jug-music was the energetic irreverence of the music, and the fact that jug-band musicians had serious musicianship, but they didn’t mind being entertainers. Plus they synthesized urban and rural styles.
“If you think about it, all jug-band music is is really early jazz and blues played on folk music instruments instead of horns,” Kweskin said.
That’s key to understanding Kweskin’s musical universe. He mentions a pivotal moment to me. When he was a student at Boston College, Kweskin went out to a folk club and saw Eric Von Schmidt doing a version of New Orleans hot jazz in a folkie context.
“He was playing ‘Buddy Bolden’s Blues,’ and it blew my mind because I knew that as a Jelly Roll Morton tune,” Kweskin said.
Taking a jazz composition and giving it a folk twist became one of Kweskin’s many maneuvers. Over the years he recorded songs like Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People.”
This all went back to some of Kweskin’s formative musical experiences: listening to early jazz on 78s from his father’s record collection during his boyhood in Connecticut. As a kid, he was listening to Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet.
“Nobody else I knew even knew who those people were,” Kweskin said.
The ‘20s and ‘30s might represent a musical golden age for Kweskin, but he also occasionally picked more contemporary material. One of his solo albums features a somewhat ironic and lament-tinged version of Merle Haggard’s classic anti-hippie rant “Okie From Muskogee.” It was ironic because Kweskin and his pals seemed to most definitely smoke marijuana (as could be inferred from their 1967 weed-toking throwback “If You’re A Viper”), probably took some trips on L.S.D. and definitely let their hair grow long and shaggy. But it makes sense that Kweskin would blend classic country, cowboy tunes, gospel, country blues, rags and more in his song bag. You can laugh and call it “Kumbaya” inclusiveness if you want, but that eclecticism has a meaning beyond just the musical excellence of the source material. And uniting people seems as worthy a goal now as it probably did in 1965.
“The integration of the various styles is very much what I’m into as an artist, but it also includes the integration of the races, of the ages, of gender,” Kweskin said. “To me, the more we do different styles of music, all of us, the more we include the entire country and everybody in it, and actually the entire world, really.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Jim Kweskin at Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Road, Winston-Salem, on Friday, March 2, at 8 p.m. $18. fiddleandbow.org