December 7th, 2007
Title: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost
Producer: Todd Kwait
Company: Ezzie Films in association with Nevessa Production
Last week I had the opportunity to preview a fabulous new documentary film, Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, which traces the African American roots of jug band music. Mark Blackwell, a member of the Lost Shoe String Band who happens to have a day job at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana, had heard about the documentary and arranged for a special showing. Also present was Todd Kwait, the Cleveland lawyer and businessman who conceived the idea about six years ago, and went on to write, direct and produce the film. Here’s the synopsis from the official website:
“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost is a documentary film on the history of Jug Band Music. It traces the roots of American music beginning with Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, The Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers from the 1920’s, and weaves a tapestry through interviews, live performances, archival footage, and photographs showing their influence on the ever-popular folk and rock movements of the 1960s.
The movie is written and directed by independent filmmaker Todd Kwait, and includes interviews and live performances by John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Bill Keith, Maria Muldaur, and the late Fritz Richmond from the influential Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, plus many more artists who were influenced by the great jug band musicians from our past.
This movie is a historical retrospective that spans the globe and honors many great talents from yesterday and today. Filming for Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost took the crew to Japan, Sweden, and Kingston, Ontario. Closer to home, filming took place in Northern California; Woodstock, New York; Portland, Oregon; Memphis and western Tennessee; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cleveland, Ohio.”
The opening clip on the trailer begins, appropriately enough, with a handcranked phonograph playing a 78 rpm record of “Viola Lee Blues” by Cannon’s Jug Stompers, written by band member Noah Lewis and recorded for the Victor label ca. 1929. This song actually served as the catalyst for Kwait’s journey into the history of jug band music.
Kwait was a huge fan of John Sebastian, leader of the ‘60s folk-rock band the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sebastian had actually started his career in the Even Dozen Jug Band during the peak of the folk revival scene. Those of you familiar with the Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit song from 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic,” might recall this reference in the second verse: “If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose/ If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues.” Obviously old time music was Sebastian’s first love, and in the late ‘90s he formed John Sebastian and the J Band. Their 1999 album Chasin’ Gus Ghost featured an arrangement of “Viola Lee Blues,” along with several other Gus Cannon and Noah Lewis songs (and obviously inspired the title of this film).
After attending a performance of the J Band in the late ‘90s, Kwait realized that he knew next to nothing about jug band music. Further exploration revealed that the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia had performed as Mother McCree and the Uptown Jug Band Champions in 1964, which eventually morphed into the Grateful Dead. As any Deadhead is sure to know, “Viola Lee Blues” was also performed extensively by the Grateful Dead between 1966-70. Kwait began to wonder, just what is this jug band music, and where did it come from? Not finding the answers readily available, he began his six year quest.
Through the assistance of John Sebastian, Bob Weir, Charlie Musselwhite, Geoff Muldaur, historian Samuel Charters, and especially Fritz Richmond (a member of the seminal Jim Kweskin Jug Band), the history of jug band music has now been explored for the first time on film. Though much time is spent chronicling the revival of jug band music by white artists in the 1960s, as well as contemporary performances in both the U.S. and Japan (the Japanese jug bands are hysterically funny), its African American origins are certainly not overlooked.
Many believe that jug band music originated around 1900 in Louisville, Kentucky, where whisky jugs were plentiful due to the community’s long association with bourbon. One of the more famous groups was the Louisville Jug Band, led by Earl McDonald. In 1903 they performed at the Kentucky Derby, setting off a tradition that lasted into the 1940s. Soon jug bands were “serenading steamboat passengers up and down the Ohio River,” and by the 1920s “jug bands were entertaining theater and dance crowds in major cities east of the Mississippi. Check out this amazing historical footage of Whistler’s Jug Band performing in Louisville around 1930 (posted by permission of Shanachie, from the the Yazoo DVD Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be: Early Rural & Popular Music From Rare original Film Master, 1928-35).[i]
Another place where the music took hold was Memphis, Tennessee, where the jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. The two most celebrated Memphis groups were Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers and Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, but it is Cannon who was most revered by the sixties folk musicians and who receives most of the attention in the film, due to his extraordinary technique on the banjo and jug, which he fastened around his neck like a racked harmonica. Interestingly, the first half of the film features Taj Mahal as the voice of Gus Cannon (Cannon himself died in 1979 at the age of 104). According to Kwait, Taj’s narration is based on actual Cannon quotes, lending a degree of authenticity to the scenes. Also profiled is band member Noah Lewis. Reverently called “the Robert Johnson of harp players” by Bob Weir, Lewis was known for his ability to play two harmonicas at once, using both mouth and nose.
Between 1927-1930, Cannon’s Jug Stompers recorded 24 songs for Victor (several were penned by Lewis), featuring some of the best jug band music ever released. Notable tracks include “Minglewood Blues” (covered by both the Grateful Dead and Sebastian’s J Band), “Viola Lee Blues,” “Mule Get Up in the Alley,” and “Walk Right In.” The latter was a huge hit for the Rooftop Singers in 1963, which led to Cannon’s rediscovery by Sam Charters. Stax arranged a recording session for the 79-year-old Cannon in 1963 (he was living in the neighborhood at the time), and amazingly Will Shade and Milton Roby were still around to back him on jug and washboard, respectively. Only 500 copies of the LP were pressed by Stax under the title Walk Right In, but it has since been reissued by Fantasy on CD.
Towards the end of the film, after considerable focus on Sebastian and the appropriation of jug band music by white folk musicians and Japanese enthusiasts, I began to wonder if any African American groups were participating in the revival of the tradition. Kwait obviously anticipated this question, for almost immediately the focus of the film shifted to the Sankofa Strings (otherwise known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, featured in the Oct. 2006 issue of Black Grooves). Sule Greg Wilson, Sankofa’s spokeman, explained that most African American musicians consider jug band music to be too old fashioned, too pre-blues, and too connected to the days of medicine and minstrel shows. But the Sankofa Strings/Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing much to promote this distinctive African American music genre, and are seen in the film teaching school kids to play the washboard and other jug band instruments. I look forward to future CD releases by this group, and am excited that immediately following the film people were already talking about bringing the Chocolate Drops to town.
Kwait is still looking for a distributer for the film, so don’t expect a DVD release anytime soon. If you’re lucky you might be able to catch Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost at a film festival or arrange for a local screening. The official world premiere was October 13th, 2007, at the Woodstock Film Festival, though there seems to have been an August preview at the Jug Band Extravaganza in San Francisco, and a January screening is scheduled at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It’s a great documentary, all the more amazing since it represents Kwait’s first foray into film making. I encourage everyone to get the word out- let’s get this film into distribution!
Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Complete Works: 1927-1930 (Yazoo 1989)
Memphis Jug Band with Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers (JSP 2005, 4 CD box set)
Walk Right In, Gus Cannon (Stax 1963; Fantasy reissue 1999)
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, John Sebastian And The J-Band (1999 Hollywood Records). Features Yank Rachell, one of the original jug band pioneers and master of the bluegrass mandolin, who performed frequently throughout southern Indiana prior to his death in Indianapolis in 1997.
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Review Genre(s): African American Culture & History