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REPLAY

A Treasure of Jug Band Tunes

November 22, 1987|TERRY ATKINSON

This feature spotlights noteworthy compilations and reissues .

Album: "Memphis Jug Band" (Yazoo).

History: The jug bands had a sound of their own--one born of necessity but so inventive that it became a uniquely expressive cross between blues and jazz in the late-'20s and early-'30s. The idea was for a country-blues group to get some of the feeling of the era's big jazz bands when no one in the group could afford a cornet, sax, etc. So in addition to a cheap guitar, a harmonica, and maybe a violin or mandolin there appeared such upstart instruments as a jug (for the bass line), a kazoo (for the cornet) and a washboard (for percussion). The result in many cases was a crude cacophony, but in certain hands this combination proved capable of creating gloriously hypnotic rhythms and moods. Jug band land stretched from Kentucky (the Dixieland Jug Blowers) to North Texas (the Dallas Jug Band), with its unofficial capital in Memphis, home of many top outfits, including Cannon's Jug Stompers and Jack Kelly's Jug Busters. No band was more popular--or better--than the loose-knit outfit that took its name from the city. Formed by Will Shade, a veteran of medicine shows, the Memphis Jug Band recorded almost 60 sides between 1927 and 1930. By 1930 the group's popularity had run its course, though it briefly reformed and recorded in 1934, after which Shade returned to the medicine-show circuit and obscurity.

Sound: There have been a few attempts since the '30s to revive the jug-band sound--most notably Jim Kweskin's group of the late '60s--but none properly captured the raw, strange feeling of the rag-tag '20s and '30s outfits. Because its personnel (except for Shade on guitar, harmonica and sometimes vocals) kept changing and its approach shifted from record to record, the Memphis Jug Band was almost like an encyclopedia of the genre, and this double LP has more quality music than any of the several jug/washboard anthologies available. The styles range from the deeply felt, authentic country blues of 1927's "Sometimes I Think I Love You" to the "uptempo hokum" of the '34 recordings. Vocals are sometimes solos and sometimes duets that have a syncopated interplay unique to jug bands. Four of the best tracks feature superb singer Hattie Hart--there's nothing dated about her heartfelt moan on "Cocaine Habit Blues." The LP contains 28 "old timey" songs, more than half of which pack more punch than most current jazz and blues. And R. Crumb did the cover art. Information: Yazoo, 245 Waverly Place, New York, N.Y. 10014.

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