Our Jug Band Could Be Your Life: Jug Bands Against George Bush
Issue #70, October 2004
I have recently seen an inordinate number of jack-asses on television talking about music and the election. The general consensus among the jack-asses is that rock and roll is for Kerry and country is for Bush. This is completely wrong. Country radio, with its pretty-boy, meathead, Ford salesmen, pop singers might support Bush, in addition to a few great musicians, like Ricky Skaggs. But nobody seems to remember that Willie Nelson — the greatest living country artist (along with Merle Haggard and George Jones) and one of the greatest ever — played right before John Kerry spoke at the Democratic convention. Before that, Willie had also written a song for the Kucinich campaign. Hell, for that matter Bruce Springsteen is far more country than most of the twits lending their "ordinary guy" cred to the J.R. Ewing — attempting to come across as John Wayne — in the White House.
To put it bluntly, country isn't Republican.
I am a life-long lover of country music and I am a fan of NASCAR (or I was until their ridiculous new "play off" system started and they decided to quit racing at Rockingham and Darlington and all the other old Southern tracks). I am from South Carolina and I pick the banjo in the old traditional way that considers the "Scruggs style" that was invented in the forties as "new school." In addition to that, I am a scholar of Ancient Greek and a teacher. I love to read and I skate ditches in a busted up old snake skin cowboy hat and drive a damned ole truck. I had seen all of the above mentioned country singers in concert by the time I was six. And I am a liberal. Unfortunately, the word has been as derided by the radical left as it has by the right, but goddamnit, I am a proud New Deal fighting Democrat, as disappointed as I am sometimes in the party to which I belong.
There is a picture of me when I was six, wearing a big black cowboy hat and a flannel shirt and holding a guitar in my hand. My neighbor is sitting beside me at a drum kit, with a stuffed animal hound dog between us. The picture is suffused with the 1970's and Waylon Jennings was my hero. We charged our parents a quarter to come and hear us. I don't remember what we actually did when we were up there, since neither of us could play our instruments. In fifth grade, even in South Carolina, I was ridiculed for liking country music. I sold out and told my mom to hide my records before people came over for my fifth grade birthday party. Through a progression that included Van Halen, Motley Crue, Quiet Riot, skate rock, punk, and a little bit of hip-hop, I found my way back to my old Waylon records in high school. Once I rediscovered these great songs I began to dream of writing and playing country music. Finally, a year or so ago I quit smoking cigarettes and, after some flirtation with the guitar, took up the banjo in order to give myself something to do with my hands in those brief five minute breaks that are so essential when writing a dissertation. I had a job where I drove a lot and tried to use the harmonica to replace those in-car cigarettes and almost killed several people on I-95 until I got a rack to hook the damn thing around my neck. Following a great deal of listening, practicing, booze, and musical embarrassment, I am now a proud member of a political jug band.
A jug band is essentially a string band with a wind section — harmonica, kazoos, and the jug, of course. In the past, string bands were mostly known as "hillbilly" bands, but jug bands recorded "race" records. Now, of course, most of the people who listen to jug bands are white record nerds, much like fans of the folk revival of the sixties. The original jug bands, however, were largely African-American and grew up around the Kentucky Derby in Louisville when vaudeville went bust. The bands arose with, but not necessarily as a result of, the introduction of cocaine into town. Jockeys would give the blow to their horses to make them run faster and then they passed it on to the prostitutes, who passed it to the musicians. In any number of jug tunes you can hear some variation of the line "coke's for horses, it ain't for men, the doctor says it'll kill me but he can't say when." The great recorded jug bands were Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band, lead by Will Shade. Cannon played a great, bouncy, banjo and blew the jug (for which he had a rack). Shade played the harmonica and sang.
Like Bob Wills' Texas Swing music, jug bands contained every form of popular music of the day and transformed all of them by mixing them up and making these new sounds on homemade DIY instruments — performing on the street corner and at parties. Jug bands came before the blues, and it wasn't really until Muddy Waters went to Chicago that the Blues found its wind section again with the harmonica. Jug bands cast a long shadow not only over the blues, but also over rock and roll, country and rap. It has the strings of country music, which are often homemade banjos, mandolins or guitars, and less often there are fiddles (since the harmonica and kazoo take most of the melody). You can hear the droning, thudding bass of a washtub and the jug sounds like the window-rattling bass of hip hop. Like country music, jug bands originated in the South, but unlike the hillbilly music, it was largely an urban, street corner, beer drinking, coke-snorting and shit talking music. The Beastie Boys "Licensed to Ill" would be a great jug band record. The Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band were far funnier than the blues, but just as tragic. Like the "good writer" that Socrates describes in the Symposium, they were able to write both tragedy and comedy. It's all acoustic and you can play it anywhere.
There is perhaps no other ensemble form as versatile as the jug band. A jug band can play country, acoustic jug punk, rockabilly, hip-hop and even reggae. So what happens when the ass holes on the twenty four hour news try to tell you the politics of your music? You make new music or revive old music and tell them to fuck off. Amazingly, there were other people in the D.C. metro area with the same idea, and with our different musical backgrounds we have formed the George Washington and his Wooden Tooth Jug Blower collective.
Like all amateur bands, GW and his Wooden Teeth grew out of the desire to have fun, play music, include as many people as we could, and still sound good. But there was always an anger in the summer air as we were forming, and this anger transformed the words of old-time/jug band tunes into extremely explicit songs detailing the imagined sex and drug escapades of the administration (If you saw Fahrenheit 9/11, you know well what Wolfowitz can do with his comb!). In previous ages popular music developed brilliant metaphors to discuss sex (like the Provencal troubadours). Now, however, porn is mainstream and politics are dirty and things seem so fucked that sex is sometimes the only appropriate metaphor for expressing political matters.
My wife and I recently marched in the Greenbelt Labor day parade with the Democrats. People were chanting and everyone was really insistent that we keep the chants positive...and that is fine. But there is also a time for standing up, as a band, in a Mexican restaurant full of people and singing about the President's feelings for Condi by saying, "After four long years he couldn't get her in bed, so he turned off the lights and fucked Tom Delay instead." We also sang a song about digging up Ronald Reagan and flaying him to make a Gipper-Skin banjo head, to the tune of "John Hardy." What I am most surprised about is the way that people respond. None of us in the band are that good, but (1) there are enough of us to help drown out each other's mistakes, (2) we sing crazy anti-Bush songs and (3) most people in the coffee shops are single dudes, singing diary songs about broken hearts. Not that that there's anything wrong with that, but after a full night of whiny singer/songwriters, a big old loud and jangly-assed jug band really changes things up. We usually have two guitars, two banjos, a mandolin, a big ole homemade washtub bass, a washboard, a harmonica and many kazoos. Sometimes we have a dulcimer. Most people have never seen a washtub bass and it makes a real impression when a big ole guy carries it into a crowded room. Almost everyone sings and so we carry a flask, for the throat. We also use cap guns. The context may be new, but the sounds of the washtub bass and the echo of the jugs are still recognizable in our collective memories.
It is a very cheap band to maintain. So cheap that you too can start a jug band! Go out on the street in your town, play whatever instruments you want, and make the kind of music you like. A punk jug band would be great. "Hill hop" is a kind of music germinating between hip hop and traditional mountain music in the Appalachians (check out Appalshop for the scoop on this). Hill-hop is only a step away from producing a hip-hop jug group. We are establishing a Jug Bands Against George Bush/Jug Bands for John Kerry organization as an offshoot of the collective (offshoots play out as the Wooden Tooth Splinters, when not everyone can make it). Your jug band could tour old folks homes, honky tonks or colleges and it would be equally loved — not because you are particularly loveable, but because a bad jug band is more interesting than most good bands. Our plan is to go out onto the streets of towns in West Virginia and Pennsylvania with the whole band and big signs saying "Support Jug Bands Against George Bush," or some such things. Kerry needs all the help he can get and so jug bands are throwing themselves into the fray just as the rock-n-rollers and the so-called country musicians.
As you read this, maybe the election has already happened and you know the outcome. But on this first cold night of September, I don't know how things are going to turn out in November. I do know that one way or another, George Washington and his Wooden Tooth Jug Blowers Collective is going to busk at the inauguration.
If Bush won, maybe you've already seen us in jail singing the "I Don't Know Which Religious Fundamentalist Freaks to be More Afraid of Blues".
Bay Woods has recently finished a Ph.d dissertation on Plato. He has equal knowledge of Waylon Jennings and whiskey.