The History of American Jug Bands

To understand the music of the south of America, you should focus your attention on Memphis. This grand old southern city sits on the majestic Tennessee River where Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas all meet. Memphis has absorbed the sounds from up and down the river, including Delta Blues, Jazz, Cajun and all kinds of folk music from the wide expanse of fields from the south. Part of this musical cornucopia were jug bands, and we look at how this eclectic form of music came to be so popular in its day.

Early Jug Bands

Jug music was created by traveling medicine show musicians and vaudeville performers. It was an easy way of making a buck on street corners without the expense of a proper instrument. The term Jug Band is fairly self-explanatory, it was just a collection of a number of individual jug players gathered together.

Early Jug Bands
Early Jug Bands

The Jugs

The actual jugs that were blown into were commonly made out of earth-ware but they could also be glass. The main concern was that each jug had its own variation of pitch and tone. This would have to include the characteristic low notes. The jugs were surprisingly effective and could almost be played like a trombone. This is because some players could achieve a swoop sound and could realistically get two octaves from their jugs.   

The Band

As time progressed lone jug players would form bands, consisting of three or four other jug players each with different sounding jugs so a blend of tones could be achieved. As these bands became increasingly more popular, they expanded to include banjos, guitars and sometimes a fiddle. This was real country music being played by poor people for poor people, and so it was often common that real instruments could not be afforded and improvisations had to be made. Guitars were fashioned from discarded parts of old instruments attached to some sort of gourd which was flattened out and a sound hole made.

As for the percussion instruments they could be made out of just about anything, from pots, washboards, broomsticks, and even spoons. Bases were often little more than a washtub turned upside down and a broomstick inserted that featured one string. More and more weird and wonderful instruments were invented, which changed the sound of each individual jug band. Obviously these crazy instruments added a distinct humor to the music which was added to by bawdy vocals.

The Music

The music these jug bands played on their home-made instruments was always high tempo with a strong backbeat. Audiences would join in striking the nearest thing that could make a sound, until the whole room was one big jug band. Jug bands could be found playing just about anywhere, from brothels to Vaudeville stages, and any event that needed a comedy aspect to the proceedings. The music was not meant to be taken seriously, it was fun and almost anybody could join in and play along.

Without jug players the bands could not sound the same, and many off-shoot types of music started including skiffle and jook. Jug music was refreshingly charming, ideal for impromptu get-togethers and especially good at parties.