Podworthy: THE JIM KWESKIN JUG BAND

When I started listening to and buying folk music albums in the 1960s, one of my favorites was this group, shown above on the cover of their first album. Unlike much of the folk music movement of the time, Kweskin’s group seemed to be having a lot of fun, and much of their music had a lively enthusiasm and a sense of humor that appealed to me. Even the instruments were entertaining. In addition to guitars and banjo, they used traditional homemade instruments like washtub base, jug, washboard and kazoos. The sound was inspired by the original jug bands recorded in the 1920s, I believe, on 78rpm records, though I have never had the chance to hear any of those. Kweskin also drew from other traditions: blues, ragtime, music hall favorites, popular songs of the 30s and 40s, even a few from the 50s. I’ll link below to an Amazon site where you can listen to samples. I’d recommend “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune” as a good example of what the group was all about: fun, irreverent, funny, but excellent musically.

Kweskin was originally playing solo in the Boston area folk clubs and coffee houses, often partnered with Fritz Richmond, who became a virtuoso on the washtub bass and jug, with other players joining in randomly. Someone from Vanguard Records heard them at a club and asked Kweskin to sign his “group” to a record contract. Kweskin replied that there was no group, but give him a few months and there’d be one. Kweskin gathered Geoff Muldaur, a fine blues singer with a clear, high tenor voice, and banjo player Bill Keith. Other early members were Mel Lyman, usually on harmonica, Bruno Wolfe and Bob Siggins. They dropped out and were replaced by Maria D’Amato on vocals and fiddle—later Maria Muldaur, shown on their second album cover above. With this second album the group got tighter, and the vocals became even better. Kweskin’s own voice was perfect for the uptempo numbers: loud and emphatic with a cutting edge that stood out well over loud instruments, while the Muldaurs were both fine blues singers, great on ballads and blues. Maria also had a clear, high soprano when needed, and was good on the kazoo.

The group’s third rcord, “See Reverse Side for Title,” is to me their best, taking all they’d accomplished so far and kicking it up a notch. I beleive that’s Richard Greene in front, followed by Geoff Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, Maria Muldaur and Jim Kweskin. As you can see, they were becoming influenced by the times, with colorful attire and on this record some hippy-sounding arrangements and songs. The group was playing larger venues like the Fillmore West in San Francisco now, and doing quite well.

For their fourth album the group signed to a new label, Reprise, part of the Warner Brothers family, and seemed poised for even bigger things when Kweskin decided to disband the group. The album is uneven, with many good songs, but also a few that miss the mark for me. It became their last as a group, though Reprise kept both Muldaurs on the label, and they both went on to long solo careers, each having one big hit. Maria’s was “Midnight at the Oasis,” and Geoff’s was “Brazil” from the soundtrack of the film by Terry Gilliam. Both continue to record today, and Geoff in particular has made some fine music. Kweskin resurfaced in the late 1970s as a solo artist on small labels, continuing to record occasionally. His solo records are pretty good, but never reaching the heights attained in the group. Fritz Richmond played in small bands and became a sound engineer, occasionally touring with John Sebastian and others. No one else ever came close to his abilities as a jug player. Sadly, he died a few years ago. Bill Keith continued to play banjo with bluegrass bands. Richard Greene joined the rock band Seatrain, and went on to be an in-demand player in a variety of styles, and is still playing today.

There are several other Kweskin albums on Vanguard that are worth listening to, like this one, from the pregroup club days…

…and this one with just Fritz and Mel Lyman. Both have quite a few songs I like, and a few I don’t care for.

Kweskin also did this album with the Neo Passé Jazz Band, and it’s quite a good listen, pairing Kweskin’s music hall style vocals with a larger band, including horns. I like it a lot.

I never got to hear the group perform in their heyday, but did hear all but Kweskin play together at this Carnegie Hall concert in 1986, with everyone sounding great and John Sebastian filling in for Kweskin, who apparently didn’t want to be part of it. I also saw Sebastian live with Fritz Richmond and Geoff Muldaur in the 90s, another fun show, when Sebastian was touring with his “J Band,” and doing a lot of jug band music and blues.

Nearly all the songs on these albums are on my iPod, except for a few on “Relax Your Mind” and “Club 47,” and one long shaggy-dog story on “Jump For Joy,” which isn’t really a song anyway. Ellen calls it “corny music,” but I love it.

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