The Memphis Jug Band was an Americanmusical group active from the mid-1920s through the late 1950s. The band featured harmonica, kazoo, fiddle and mandolin or banjolin, backed by guitar, piano, washboard, washtub bass and jug. They played slow blues, pop songs, humorous songs and upbeat dance numbers with jazz and string band flavors. The band made the first commercial music recordings in Memphis, and recorded more sides than any other pre-war jug band.
Memphis Jug Band
Beginning in 1926, various African-American musicians in the Memphis, Tennessee, area grouped around singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player Will Shade (also known as Son Brimmer or Sun Brimmer). The personnel of this jug band varied from day to day, with Shade booking gigs and arranging recording sessions. The band functioned as a training ground for musicians who would go on to success with careers of their own.
Among the recorded members of the Memphis Jug Band were (at various times) Will Shade (harmonica, guitar, vocals), Charlie Burse (pronounced Bursey) (guitar, tenor guitar, vocals), Charlie Nickerson (vocals, piano), Charlie Pierce (fiddle), Charlie Polk (jug), Tewee Blackman (guitar, vocals), “Hambone” Lewis (jug), Jab Jones (piano, jug, vocals), Johnny Hodges/Hardge (piano), Ben Ramey (kazoo, vocals), Casey Bill Weldon (guitar, vocals), Memphis Minnie (guitar, vocals), Vol Stevens (vocals, fiddle, mandolin), Milton Robie (fiddle), Otto Gilmore/Gilmer (drums and woodblocks), and Robert Burse (washboard, drums). Vocals were also provided byHattie Hart, Memphis Minnie, Jennie Mae Clayton (Shade’s wife), and Minnie Wallace. In the case of Memphis Minnie, the Memphis Jug Band accompanied her on two sides for Victor Records, recorded in 1930 during one of her first recording sessions. Some members also contributed to gospel recordings, either uncredited or as part of the Memphis Sanctified Singers. Their large membership pool allowed the Memphis Jug Band the flexibility to play a mixture of ballads, dance tunes, knock-about novelty numbers, and blues.
The group recorded under several names on various recording labels, but today are most often referred to as the Memphis Jug Band. Alternate band names used in releases include the Picaninny Jug Band, Memphis Sanctified Singers, the Carolina Peanut Boys, the Dallas Jug Band, the Memphis Sheiks and the Jolly Jug Band. Other releases were credited to the individual performers Hattie Hart, Minnie Wallace, Casey Bill Weldon, Charlie Nickerson, Vol Stevens, Charlie Burse, “Poor Jab” Jones, and Will Shade, but performed with accompaniment by other Memphis Jug Band members.
Part of the Memphis Jug Band's remarkable sound was due to the unusual instruments. The first recorded jug bands, based in Louisville, Kentucky, were jazz-oriented groups with ajug taking the place of a tuba or trombone. The Memphis Jug Band borrowed from this model but added kazoo as a prominent lead instrument, similar in sound to a trumpet in a jazz band. Another variation from the Louisville sound was a focus on country blues songs like those favored by Jim Jackson and other Memphis-area solo artists. (The Memphis Jug Band recorded Jackson's hit song "Kansas City Blues" twice during its commercial recording period and chose it for its 1958 "Blues Street" television performance.) This is the basic jug band sound that was adopted by other Memphis-area groups like Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, Jed Davenport's Beale Street Jug Band and Jack Kelly's South Memphis Jug Band.
After this initial focus on country blues, the band's repertoire expanded as new members contributed their own styles. Songs led by Charlie "Bozo" Nickerson, like "Everybody's Talking About Sadie Green" and "Cave Man Blues," were boisterous and funny; songs led by Charlie Burse, like "Little Green Slippers" and "Insane Crazy Blues," were more musically complex and jazz-oriented; while songs led by Charlie Pierce sounded like Appalachian fiddle tunes, albeit backed by impressive jug playing and various shouted challenges from his bandmates. While Will Shade continued playing straightforward country blues songs for the rest of his life, he also introduced some jazz elements, including blending lyrics from Cab Calloway's "Jumpin' Jive" into his 1962 field recording of "Jump and Jive."
Blues scholar Paul Oliver noted that the "raspy, buzzing sound" of some of the jug band instruments was close to the musical aesthetic of Africa, and he said the jug and kazoo represented the voices of animals or ancestral spirits. But many of the Memphis Jug Band's influences are more readily apparent in the various popular musical styles of their time.
The Memphis Jug Band played wherever they could find engagements, and busked in local parks and markets. They were popular among white as well as black audiences, playing at country clubs and parties at the Peabody Hotel. The band was a favorite of former mayor Edward Hull "Boss" Crump, and was shown performing at one of Crump's parties in a LIFEmagazine photo feature in 1941.
Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band made more than eighty commercial recordings, first for Victor Records, then—as the Picaninny Jug Band—for the Champion-Gennettlabel, and finally for OKeh Records. The Victor recordings were made in Memphis and Atlanta, Georgia between 1927 and 1930, the Champion-Gennetts in Richmond, Indiana, in August 1932, while the final sessions on Okeh were held in Chicago in November 1934. By that time, their style of music was no longer in demand by record companies, as commercial styles were moving toward a more urban sound.
The other jug band song on "The Country Blues" was Gus Cannon's "Walk Right In," which became a hit for The Rooftop Singers in 1962. Capitalizing on the success of that recording, Memphis label Stax Records invited then-79-year-old Gus Cannon to record a full-length album the following year. Memphis Jug Band leader Will Shade backed Cannon on jug, with former member Milton Roby on washboard.
During the 1950s folk revival, Will Shade became the subject of several field recordings, while his ongoing performing activity and accessible location in Memphis made him a popular starting point for scholars seeking other musicians in the area. Shade would often gather other musicians to his apartment at Fourth and Beale for informal recording sessions featuring former musical rivals (including his former romantic rival Furry Lewis) playing together in different combinations. Shade continued using the name Memphis Jug Band, even for recordings consisting only of him and one or two other members. Shade's wife Jennie Mae Clayton, who sang on some of the earliest Memphis Jug Band recordings, bookended the band's career by singing on some of these final field recordings.
The following is a list of commercially available field recordings from this period:
American Skiffle Bands, recorded 1957, reissued 2012, 3 songs and 1 interview
Alan Lomax Blues Songbook, recorded 1959, reissued 2003, 1 song
Conversation with the Blues, recorded 1960, reissued 1997, 1 interview
Tennessee Recordings (from the George Mitchell collection), recorded 1962, reissued 2006, 7 songs
I Blueskvarter: 1964, Volume Three, recorded 1964, reissued 2004, 2 songs
The Memphis Jug Band was key in developing the jug band format, which evolved into the blues combo that is the basis of much of the popular music of today. However, their legacy, like that of other acoustic blues musicians of their era, has been largely overshadowed by the electric blues musicians of the 1950s. Modern jug bands still play many Memphis Jug Band songs, but generally the only songs recognizable to a wider audience are those that were covered by rock groups in the 1960s.