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American Routes Shortcuts: Jim Kweskin

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Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band

Guitarist Jim Kweskin has been making jug band music for over half a century. He started performing in the 1950s at the famed Club 47 in Boston, and in the 1960s, the Jim Kweskin Band with Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Fritz Richmond and Mel Lyman emerged as interpreters and innovators of the jug band style for a national audience. I asked Jim how he first became aware of Southern folk music, Gus Cannon and the jug bands of the 1920s.

Jim Kweskin: When I went to summer camp as a kid, some of the counselors played guitar and sang folk songs. That was my first real personal introduction to folk music. And then I started hearing recordings by Pete Seeger, of course, and the Weavers and some of the other early folk musicians. For a long time, I thought that's what folk music was. And it wasn't until I heard the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music that I realized that there was some place where they had learned it from, which was Appalachia and the Southwest and the Deep South. And then of course, part of that scene was the jug bands.

[music]

Nick Spitzer: What is it about that music, Gus Cannon in particular, that grabbed your ear and I suppose really your heart, and it became your passion? Why do you think that happened?

JK: Well, it's a good question, and the thing about it is, is that there's no sensible reason why a kid from Stanford, Connecticut would fall in love with, you know, rural music from Tennessee or anywhere in the South. All I can tell you is that I did fall in love with it. When I was first coming up as a kid, I thought there was two kinds of music that I loved. One was, as I mentioned, folk music, the folk music that I was aware of, and the other was early jazz, traditional jazz. My father had a collection of 78s, and I started listening to early Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet and some of these really great traditional jazz musicians.

NS: That's interesting. I mean, it's your dad's editorial selections and choices become part of your soundscape, but unlike your dad, you go start playing this music eventually and becoming a performer of it, and known for the recreation of the music and new creation, really, because you didn't just copy it. You did your own thing.

JK: What happened is that somewhere along the line, I would say in the late fifties, I'd gone to Boston University to go to school, and I went into the Club 47, which was a great folk music club in the day. And I heard Eric von Schmidt playing the guitar and singing a Jelly Roll Morton song. He was singing "Buddy Bolden's Blues." And it was like, oh my God, I could take these old jazz songs that I have loved so much and play them on the guitar and sing. And it had never even occurred to me, and that was kind of like the eye opener.

[music]

NS: You know, when we talk about a jug band, obviously there's got to be at least in some of the music, a jug. Who are some of the guys that started joining you to make the music in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, as it evolves?

JK: First of all, I was playing around Cambridge by this time, and in the Boston Cambridge area, one of the great musicians that I ran into was wonderful Fritz Richmond, who was a washtub bass player at first. And I was doing a gig at the Club 47, and I always had lots of musicians jamming with me on stage. So, I did this gig one night, and unbeknownst to me in the audience was the owner and president of Vanguard Records. And he came up to me after the show and he said, "How would you like to make a record with that band?" And I said, "Well, that's not a band, but I'd love to make a record." So I had a record deal before I had a band. I realized I wanted to put together a jug band. So I called Fritz up, and I said, “Fritz, you gotta come back, and you have to learn how to play the jug.” And he came back and he did.

[music]

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.