Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

August 4, 2017

Memphis Jug Band 1932-1934 (Document Records BDCD-6002)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 2:15 pm

memphis jug 1


The Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order 1932-1934

Document Records BDCD-6002

The first rule of acting is that you cannot play a drunken character while you are drunk. Then you are a drunken person and incapable of having the command of your body and your faculties that a successful acting performance requires. You have to, as a trained actor, create a contrived set of speech and body movement particulars which creates THE EFFECT of a drunken person in the way that people expect it on the stage or on film. Similarly, you cannot create a “party” atmosphere on a phonograph record just by setting a mike out at an actual party—-the result would be incredibly tedious. No one would want to listen to it….no one would want to BE AT IT based on what they heard. If you think about successful “party atmospheres” which have been created on record, they are all totally contrived….yet they work. Think about the various productions of Norfork, Virginia’s FRANK GUIDA such as Gary US Bonds’s classic “Quarter To Three”….Guida knew exactly what elements to put on a record to create the idea of a party in the listeners’  minds, and not to put too much there because it would then be too cluttered. Whenever I hear a Guida production with the party atmosphere, I want to be there.

Undoubtedly, one of the main selling points of the recordings of the Memphis Jug Band, who were at their commercial peak between 1927-1930, was that their records had the infectious feel of a party, but it was concentrated on a phonograph record and created the EFFECT of a party through suggestion and atmosphere. The Memphis Jug Band were very popular in their day, and both Black and White (segregated) audiences had a joyous time at their performances, from what I’ve read.

The core of the pool of musicians who were associated with the MJB—-Will Shade aka Son Brimmer, Charlie Burse, Vol Stevens, Charlie Nickerson, “Poor Jab” Jones, Hambone Lewis, etc.—-understood how to create an infectious party vibe on record. While the songs, often country blues-based but with occasional pop references and reflecting the larger popular culture of the day while being totally based in the African-American experience of the South, especially the rural South, always had appeal, the SOUND of these records is for me what made them special. The rich textures of the mandolin, jug, kazoo, guitar, harmonica, washboard, “bones” and cowbell and other rural percussion, create a thick stew of sound, and its rhythm oozes and shakes like jelly.

The individual members of this loose collective continued to record off and on until as late as the early 1960’s, but their best known body of work was for Victor between 1927 and 1930, and these have been available on a Yazoo LP and then CD for decades….an album I’ve played hundreds of times over the years. However, what I’d like to discuss here is a lesser-known collection of recordings, the ones they made immediately post-Victor, between 1932 and 1934, which are assembled on a Document CD.

Evidently the gigs and recordings were organized by Will Shade, and after the band’s recording heyday, 1927-1930, at Victor, there are two groups of sessions documented on this Document CD which are joyous and really worthy of your attention.

Five tracks were recorded by Gennett for their Champion budget label in Richmond, Indiana, on one day in August 1932. This was the heart of the depression in terms of record sales, which were a small fraction in 1932 of what they’d been in 1927-29. It’s no surprise that these were on the budget Champion label, which would be slightly more affordable than a full-priced Victor or Gennett 78 to the working-class jug band lover of the day who wanted a taste of that party flavor in their own home. It’s also clear that someone, either the label or the musicians themselves, decided it would be a good thing to jump on the “hokum” bandwagon—-although that style had peaked a few years earlier with the countless imitations of “Tight Like That”, it still sold records, and even today can still put a smile on people’s faces and get their toes tapping. So four of the five songs are in that vein, but with the patented “deep” and eclectic textures of sound and infectious dance rhythms of the MJB. The fifth, “Come Along Little Children,” sounds like a secular adaptation of a Gospel song, and is a wonderful sing-along track about how we are out to “raise a roo-kus tonight.” It’s interesting to note (see below) that while two of the five songs were released as a solo 78 by the MJB, the other three songs were backed on 78’s with a song by another artist. Was the label hedging its bet here, thinking that two different artists would have twice the appeal of one? At this point, who knows? Also interesting to note the name change of the band here (see credits below and the disc pictured)….budget labels sometimes used pseudonyms so the artists could still use their “real” name on higher-priced labels, but of course by doing that, they were not taking any advantage of the residual name value of The Memphis Jug Band.

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Next, the other group of recordings, sixteen masters, was recorded in Chicago in 1934 and released on 78’s by Okeh and Vocalion. These hearkened back to the classic MJB sound more than the Champion sessions did, and also benefited from the addition of a raw and jaunty fiddle as one of the alternating lead voices. These songs often have an infection call-and-response vocal, or vocal interjections from a second band member in contrast to the lead vocal (not unlike what Bob Wills would do on his records), and once again we have a rich and thick stew of sound here, with the sweet-and-sour taste of mandolin, jug, kazoo, various rural percussion instruments, a strummed guitar that even the mediocre dancer could latch onto, and the wonderful floating voice of the fiddle. While the 1934 recordings have been reissued elsewhere, this Document album is of great value and is not hard to find, and contains all the 1932-34 post-Victor recordings, a period of the MJB’s career not that well-known.

Of course, all of the JSP albums from the MJB are essential purchases, especially Volume 3 which contains both their later Victor sessions AND alternate takes from the earlier sessions. There is also a CD on Wolf which I’ve owned for decades called MEMPHIS JUG BAND: ASSOCIATES AND ALTERNATE TAKES, 1927-30 (Wolf WBCD-004). This album repeats the alternates from the third JSP album, but also offers 17 additional tracks which are solo recordings under the names of MJB members and colleagues, many of which have essentially the same personnel and are all joyous and richly textured recordings which make you feel like you are at one of “Boss” Crump’s parties or at some rural fishfry. Over the span of many decades, these musicians are STILL able to create a true party vibe and put a smile on people’s faces and get their toes-a-tapping. That’s certainly a wonderful and precious gift. Also, those interested in the area of “African retentions” in the blues of the 20’s and 30’s could investigate the MJB’s sound elements, particularly the “little instruments,” and find much worthy of study.

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(above: Robert Crumb’s classic portrait of the Memphis Jug Band)

Also worth finding for the fan of this sound is the Old Tramp CD of 1939 recordings of the MJB’s Charlie Burse and His Memphis Mudcats, along with sessions from the same year by James DeBerry and His Memphis Playboys. Burse recorded for Sun in 1950 (though the tracks remained unissued at the time), so I guess everything comes full circle.


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