Gus Cannon and the Rise of Jug Band Music
Jug band music originated in Louisville, Kentucky, around 1905, but reached its fullest flowering in Memphis in the 1920s. Though there were others, two groups in particular dominated Beale Street: the Memphis Jug Band, led by Will Shade, and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The former came first and was more popular at the time, but it’s the Cannon/Stompers legacy that has best endured. In 1963 the Rooftop Singers, a Greenwich Village folk trio featuring Erik Darling, hit No. 1 on the pop charts with a shiny reading of “Walk Right In.” Later in that decade, the Lovin ‘Spoonful built a career on a rock ‘n ‘roll version of the jug band sound; among their infectious output was a sweet take on “Bring It with You When You Come,” and John Sebastian morphed “Prison Wall Blues” into the wistful original “Younger Girls.” Grateful Dead‘s 1967 debut album featured “Viola Lee Blues” and something they called “New New Minglewood Blues” inspired by the Stompers’ “Minglewood Blues” and “New Minglewood Blues” (two radically different songs, by the way). More recently, a jug band documentary called Chasing Gus ‘Ghost has just been released on DVD after making the rounds of film festivals; among those interviewed or performing are Sebastian, Bob Weir of the Dead, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Bill Keith and the late Fritz Richmond of the ’60s revivalists the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
And why not such acclaim? Gus Cannon’s life and career embodies the jug band story as well as anybody’s. Born the youngest of 10 kids to sharecropping parents – his father had been a slave – on a plantation at Red Banks, Mississippi, in 1883, Cannon was 12 when he moved to Clarksdale with an older brother. Around the same time, he made his first banjo out of a guitar neck, frying pan and raccoon skin. Within a couple years he’d moved on to the Memphis area, where he undertook various manual labor jobs while venturing out to play the sawmills and levee and railroad camps; in 1914 he joined the medicine show circuit as Banjo Joe, the name under which he first recorded (with Blind Blake) in 1927. He was one of the few to ever play slide banjo. But around that time, he also saw the Memphis Jug Band playing for tips at Church Park. He noticed that the MJB was also recording heavily, and when Ralph Peer of RCA Victor came to Memphis in January of 1928 to cut local acts, Gus formed a jug band of his own. He had Noah Lewis on harmonica (he could play two at once, with his mouth and nose) and Ashley Thompson on guitar and vocals. In addition to banjo, Cannon sang and blew into his homemade paraffin jug (which hung from a strap around his neck) to make a sound that fell about halfway between trombone and tuba.
The trio cut four sides for Peer – “Minglewood Blues” and the driving “Railroad Blues” with Thompson singing lead, and “Madison Street Rag” and “Springdale Blues” featuring Cannon. By 1930 they’d released 33 sides as Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, and a handful more in various configurations under other names. Thompson dropped out after those initial sessions, replaced by Hosea Woods (who played guitar, banjo and kazoo in addition to singing a little) and/or Elijah Avery (banjo, guitar). Memphis jug bands were much more rooted in blues than their Louisville forerunners, who came out of ragtime, and the Jug Stompers were perhaps the bluesiest of all. And while the tendency is to reduce jug bands to novelty acts because of their good-timey sound, these guys were serious musicians. Lewis could play a floating, haunting harmonica or blow hard, insistent lines, in either case weaving in and out of the vocals without ever getting in the way; his instrumental “Noah’s Blues” is all tone and texture. On tracks like “Viola Lee Blues” and the wall-of-sound “Cairo Rag,” the twin banjo attack of Cannon and Avery resonated like little else in blues. Nor were that many of the songs novelties to begin with: For every whimsical “Mule Get Up in the Alley,” there was a nervous, foreboding “Going to Germany.”
Though Cannon’s Jug Stompers played their last session in 1930, they remained popular on Beale Street for most of the decade before finally splitting up. Cannon next surfaced in 1956, when he cut a pair of tracks for a Folkways compilation called American Skiffle Bands. After the Rooftop Singers ‘”Walk Right In” was the top single in the nation for three weeks, a fledgling Memphis label called Stax Records cut a raucous album of Cannon reminiscing and picking. It was named after that song, and it proved that Gus Cannon (now 79 years old) still had more than a little piss and vinegar left in him. He was 96 when he finally died in 1979.