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Jim Kweskin - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 25 / 6 / 2010

Jim Kweskin - Interview


Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur were two of the pioneering members of the early 60's jug movement. Lisa Torem talks to them about the enduring nature of the movement and their recent decision to tour together again

Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur are currently featured in a documentary entitled ‘Chasin’ Gus Ghost’, written and directed by Todd Kwait. The film traces the origins of jug band music throughout America and, also, details how countries, as far away as Sweden and Japan, have reacted to this genre with great enthusiasm. Starting in the 1960s midst fervent social change, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Maria D’Amato, Mel Lyman, David Simon and Fritz Richmond) was the quintessential jug band prototype. They inspired many of the up and coming bands during the American 60s folk revival. Intrigued by traditional classics, written and performed by talented African-American artists, they used these tunes for inspiration, but created original works, too, and used primitive instruments; jugs, a home-made stand-up bass, banjos, violins, guitars and tambourines, as back-up and solo devices. Kweskin, Muldaur and D’Amato (who became Maria Muldaur), traded vocals. Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers recorded 78 RPM records, spanning the 1920s and 1930s, and these richly emotional songs also became spring boards for 60's folk singers via the Folkways Record Label, and their repertoire was highly respected by Muldaur and Kweskin, as well. But, while both artists have performed and studied this genre for several decades, and could be called upon as bona fide experts, both seem just as happy expressing the joy found through live performance with other talented musicians who share similar passions. Today banjos, mandolins, guitars and harmonicas still seem to find a welcoming place in this medium. Kweskin and Muldaur’s performances are interactive and it’s usually simple to find the “hook” from each song as the structures are straight-forward, but embracing. ‘Stealin Stealin’, ‘Papa’s on the Housetop’, ‘Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me’ and ‘Sweet Sue’ are a few samples of the titles and themes that encourage audiences to sing and clap along. Kweskin is quick to point out that “it’s a blend of serious musicianship and hokum.” Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur are currently on an American tour in support of their new release ‘The Great American Music Hall,’ which also features performances by John Sebastian, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur and the Barbecue Orchestra. They will perform many traditional jug band songs; using acoustic- based instruments, to multi-generational fans. In the fall of 2009 Muldaur and Kweskin happily transversed New England, Holland, Germany and Sweden, then pillaged the American Southwest, Austin, Texas and Berkeley, California closer to the Christmas holidays, for performances with the Texas Sheiks. Jim Kweskin stems from Stamford, Connecticut. Kweskin has released six albums and two greatest hits compilations n Vanguard Records, four albums on Mountain Railroad Records between 1978 and 1987 and performed on Jim Kweskin’s America on Reprise Records in 1971. The band was renowned for its mid 60's appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and have played with the Doors and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Geoff describes his intimate partnership with Jim Kweskin. “People think that the Jim Kweskin Jug Band of the 60s was a devil-may-care walk in the park. It was not – it was a well-rehearsed walk in the park.” Muldaur rose from the ashes of Cambridge MA and the Woodstock NY scene, co-founded the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and the Chicago-based Paul Butterfield’s Better Days group, has collaborated with Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Garcia and has scored countless films and TV shows. In addition, he has enjoyed a number of radio spots on NPR. Muldaur has interests, outside of music, that are noteworthy and speak to his willingness to appreciate other disciplines. An avid lover of the painter Kandinsky, he comments: “Kandinsky’s paintings are, for me, an example of the magic in art.” Muldaur also finds the work of Dutch painter Vermeer fascinating, describing ‘The Girl with a Red Hat’ as “exquisite, sensuous and engaging,” and ‘Young Girl with a Flute’ as “awkward and confusing.” Add to that panoply of advocations, a love of striped bass and bird watching. Muldaur’s description of the said fish is absolute poetry: “It’s haunts are picturesque…along beaches, inlets and rocky shores, and it has a classic look about it. It looks like a fish ought to look…” But, his relationships with other musicians are also telling. “We would collect the wood with a four-wheel drive truck, lay the wood out to dry and then drive it up to Fritz’s parents’ house in Newton. There, in his father’s woodworking shop, we would plane, sand, dry and turn the wood to fashion shelves, beds, washboard frames…this was mostly Fritz’s passion, but I loved helping him.” Other professionals feel this way about Muldaur’s talents. Richard Thompson says, “There are only three while blues singers, and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.” His former partner, Maria Muldaur, says, “Hearing his new record reminds me of why I fell for this guy in the first place. This album is long overdue and I’ve never heard him sound better.” Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III remarks, “Geoff Muldaur was and is one of my musical heroes. When I listen to him sing and play, I can hear the coal mine, the cotton fields… .” Muldaur contrasts his Cambridge, MA days with the glamour of New York : “We played and listened to music every day and night and, with few exceptions, no one on the scene was planning anything particular in the way of a career. New York, on the other hand, was all about “making it.” At least, that’s how we saw things generally.” The two men discuss what makes jug band music so enduring, why it has universal appeal and how it has impacted their lives to Pennyblackmusic. PB: The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was instrumental in creating a great deal of admiration for jug band music in the 60s. Several of the featured performers on your new CD and DVD, Maria Muldaur, David Grisman and John Sebastian, originally performed in another jug band called the Even Dozen Jug Band. What was the relationship between these two groups? JK: The Even Dozen Jug Band was a group of very talented young musicians from New York City. As far as I know, they were put together by Paul Rothschild from Elektra Records as an answer to our band (The Jim Kweskin Jug Band-LT). Paul had wanted us to record for Elektra Records, but it was Maynard Solomon from Vanguard Records who originally asked us to record. We were loyal to him. The Even Dozen only made one record. The band didn’t last very long. Many of the young musicians from that band went on to great success in the world of music. GM: The Even Dozen Jug Band was put together by Paul Rothschild (Doors, Janis Joplin, Butterfield) in an attempt to jump on the Jug Band train that was driven by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Although the Even Dozen had members that would go on to prominence, the band had almost no influence on anyone at the time. PB: The documentary ‘Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost’ relies very much on first-person recollections to define that “pre-war jug band blues style” that influenced John Sebastian and other 60's musicians. According to a press release, only a few 78s from that period of musical history have been available until now, so this type of research becomes even more crucial. As you recounted your personal experiences for this film, did you gain any new perspectives on the music or musicians with whom you’ve shared the stage? JK: Actually, almost every jug band record ever made, in the 20s and 30s, has been available on re-issue vinyl and CDs for many years. I don’t think the young musicians, who search for and listen to those old recordings, are doing it for research. I think they are doing it for the love of the music. That’s what I did. Remember, we didn’t copy the old records. They were simply a source of inspiration. GM: I was already smitten by the musicians I ran into in the 60s. I ate and drank with them and listened to them as a fan. Their influence on me was usually subliminal in that I did not try to copy them…nor did the Kweskin Jug Band. Todd’s movie gave me a chance to look back with pleasure at the Golden Age. PB: You both started performing “jug band” decades ago and, unlike many other performing artists, have remained very closely committed to this genre. Which element defines this commitment more; a sense of maintaining social history for posterity or a plain-old passion for the arrangements? JK: It has nothing whatever to do with “maintaining social history for posterity.” Music is, as you say, a passion. GM: I’ve remained committed to this genre recently because I have been asked to perform it. It is only one of the many things I do. PB: One clip shows a black performer, Yank Ranchell, performing to a grateful crowd and musician John Sebastian, who also performed on the same stage, comments, “We were the wallpaper.” Do you see yourselves, like Sebastian, feeling humbled by the legacy of this music of the performers who initially presented it? JK: Yes. GM: Not at all. It’s just a simple fact…those original guys invented the idiom. They are all powerful. There is no simple way to compete. My job is to find a new way to say things, which is why I’m not a copier, but someone who renders material much like rendering suet to feed the birds. PB: On the DVD, Jim, you say, “Noah Lewis is the Robert Johnson of harmonica.” You go on to say that this talented musician went out barefoot in the freezing cold, got lost and faced dire consequences in Minglewood – that song ‘New Minglewood Blues’ is on the new CD. Do you have any additional comments regarding Lewis? JK: Noah Lewis is by far my favorite “old time” pre-war harmonica player. GM: I only sang ‘Minglewood’ which is something I’ve done for a million years. I basically do it when I get together with John Sebastian. It’s well-suited to my voice. PB: ‘Richland Woman,’ ‘Eight More Miles to Louisville,’ and ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ concretely use geography as a poignant backdrop with which to personalize heart-felt thoughts. Why did you choose to feature these songs? JK: They were good songs. PB: Blues artists, today, find themselves still facing poverty and often feel overlooked, especially in the United States. Do you think this documentary has a healing element and that times have changed socially? Which tunes, off your accompanying CD ‘The Great American Music Hall Jug Band Extravaganza’, explore and celebrate the joy that is jug band? JK: Great artists, in any art form, have always struggled to make a living. I think the film can open people’s eyes to the wonders of a great American art form. Some of the songs were originally done by the early jug bands but the joy and celebration, as you put it, comes from our love of playing music together. GM: Of course, things have changed since we were young. We experienced and participated, to a small degree, the end of the Golden Age in the arts. We’ve gone from ‘post modern’ to ‘contemporary’ in the visual and architectural worlds. There’s a hint right there. We are past the peak. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed the inventors of music which is still played today. When BB King passes away, there will be no more inventors of blues music left on the planet. PB: Todd Kwait is already working on another film. What is most important for people to know about this music that has not already been stated? In this age of short-attention spans and rapid-fire technology, what makes people sit still for acoustic-based music? JK: Quality. PB: Geoff, you said, “People tried to play the jug and couldn’t play the damn thing.” Jim, you said, “the best bands are loose and tight at the same time. We played to the muse.” It seems that this music, according to those who know it so well, is much more challenging technically than we might think. Is that true? JK: It has to do with the combination of arrangement and improvisation. Just listen to Bob Wills Texas Playboys or Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven or the Memphis Jug Band. GM: You’ve got it. When I started playing acoustic blues as a young (white) man, there might have been 150 other guys doing the same thing in the US. What are there now? 150,000? All this with no apparent increase in quality. There is more technical prowess in a certain sense, but that secret sauce..well, the recipe is a secret. That’s all there is to it. Amazing. PB: David Grisman, however, refers to jug band as “the music of individuals.” Why? JK: Got me! You’ll have to ask him what he meant. PB: As you recounted your personal experiences for this film, did you gain any new perspectives on the music or musicians with whom you’ve shared the stage? JK: Yes. It made me aware of just how influential my jug band was. I really had no idea. PB: Todd Kwait’s journey included stops through American cities such as Louisville and Memphis, and Sweden and Japan. Several Americans interviewed were surprised to find that this music existed in their own back yard.A Swedish author documented the movement and Japan has gone crazy with many of the traditional arrangements and actual home-made instruments. Does this universal appeal surprise you? JK: A little. I didn’t know that there were so many people in foreign countries who love jug band music. When Geoff and I do shows in the US only about 10% of the crowd are younger adults in their 20s and 30s. In Japan it’s about 50%. GM: No, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Jug band music is like a crocus in the snow. When anyone comes upon it, they smile and enjoy it. PB: The Sankofa Strings ensemble are an African American group who feel that African American performers are distinctly capable of “pushing the envelope,” in other words, performing jug band music despite it being deeply personal in terms of conjuring up earlier and still existing racial divides. Do you feel that race has played a part in your commitment to this music? JK: Not really. It’s all about the music and the wonderful musicians who played and still play jug band music. It has nothing to do with race, although I applaud Sanofka String for their commitment. GM: No. But I would suppose it has played a big part in Sankofa’s commitment. PB: One shot showed Japanese jug band performers feeling great excitement upon realizing that you were present during a record store performance. You claimed that performing in Japan was a dream come true. Why do you think this music has taken Japan by storm? JK: Many forms of American music have taken Japan by storm including bluegrass. I think they just like American music. GM: Every type of music has taken Japan by storm. They are a curious and educated lot. My tours of Japan over the years – since 1978 – have helped to some degree. PB: Gus Cannon was considered a musical pioneer, but grew bitter in his later years as he felt he was not fairly compensated for his life’s work. “I got the record, but I don’t get the machine to play it on,” he said. Ultimately, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in May of 2010. Why did this acknowledgement take so long? JK: Many of the old rural musicians, both black and white, were taken advantage of by aggressive and greedy A & R men, many of whom claimed publishing rights on songs that they recorded, but did not write. If Gus Cannon had been given his full share of ‘Walk Right In,’ which he first recorded in the 20s, and was a big hit for the Rooftop Singers in the 60s, he would have been a wealthier man. Many of the old musicians were paid a small sum for the record sessions and no royalties; even if their records sold well. It was the record companies who made the money. PB: “The popping of the record, sound of the harmonies, put me on a quest to discover anything I could about jug band music,” was a thought articulated by the film’s narrator, after pouring through the recordings of Gus Cannon. This deep reverence seems to have hit you both equally hard. JK: I love great music. It doesn’t matter when it was recorded or what kind of music it is. I have a reverence for great music and great musicians. Like I said in the film, it’s a blend of serious musicianship and hokum. Good jug bands are good because the musicians are good.(Maybe that’s what Grisman meant). But like any group or team, there also has to be an element that makes a band better than the sum of the parts. PB: Bob Weir, a member of the Grateful Dead, claims that jug band, which was much loved by Jerry Garcia, eventually morphed into what became the style of music the Dead performed. Do you think many of the 60s fans are aware of this? JK: A few. Not many. GM: No. The Jim Kweskin Band had an enormous effect on 60s music and culture. Not necessarily Jug Band music, but the Kweskin band for sure. PB: Fritz Richmond tearfully said, “Someone will have to pick up where I left off.” He was referring to performing for less than full houses and facing terminal illness. The CD was dedicated to Richmond who also had urged the production team to view Japan as the future of jug band. Do you see other countries embracing jug band in the same way? JK: Japan is unique. But Geoff and I have a good following in Germany. And we recently played successful gigs in Stockholm and Amsterdam. GM: If I knew this I’d be rich! PB: Final question: What is most important to you in your musical career currently and what lies in the future? JK: Right now I am having a blast touring with Geoff. We really enjoy playing together. There will probably be a record made in the near future. GM: I am currently working on a chamber piece for strings and woodwinds. I rehearse in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. In addition, I am checking out gospel choirs in order to record my gospel arrangements. This year, I also am touring with my pal, Jim, in the States, with Amos Garrett in Japan and playing festivals in Canada. PB: Thank you.

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Jim Kweskin - Interview

Jim Kweskin - Interview

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