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Jug Heads 

A local filmmaker unearths the roots and revival of a uniquely American art form.

Not pictured: The rhythm section made up of pots and pans.
  • Not pictured: The rhythm section made up of pots and pans.

Cleveland's obsession with polka is a nationally circulated factoid. But our city is also home to Todd Kwait, one of the world's most rabid fans of jug-band music. You're probably wondering, "What the hell is jug-band music?" That's the same thing Kwait asked in 1997, when he saw John Sebastian and the J-Band in concert.

Kwait was there because he's been a fan of Sebastian's old group, folk-rock pioneers the Lovin' Spoonful, since attending Boston University in the 1970s. Each spring, Kwait and his roommate — while cranking love-generation chestnuts like "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" and "Do You Believe in Magic?" — would dream of gorgeous college coeds sunbathing in bikinis.

But Sebastian, a true master of between-song banter, dropped a bomb that night. Classic jug-band music from the 1920s, he told the rapt audience, had a huge effect on the Spoonful. In fact, "Younger Girl" (Kwait's all-time fave) was nothing more than a loose rewrite of "Prison Wall Blues," an early 20th-century relic recorded by some group called Cannon's Jug Stompers.

Kwait had no idea what Sebastian was talking about. But he would have — had he been in college a decade earlier, when folkies in Boston, the Bay Area, and New York (where Sebastian grew up) became obsessed with long-forgotten jug bands like the Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band, and Noah Lewis' Jug Band.

But Kwait is a Clevelander. So, after college, he returned home to study law at Case Western Reserve University. Growing tired of statutes after about a decade, he went into business with his father, who manufactured health and beauty-aid products. Through it all, Kwait remained a movie buff who dreamed of making a film. (He's on the board of trustees for Independent Pictures, a local organization that stages an annual festival and serves as a resource for Cleveland-area filmmakers. )

After that J-Band concert, Kwait learned all there is to know about the original jug-band music and its revival during the folk boom. He snatched up record after record, book after book, and eventually this life-consuming obsession became the subject of his very first movie.

Chasin' Gus' Ghost excavates the life and times of Gus Cannon, the man behind Cannon's Jug Stompers and one of the music's pioneers. Kwait spotlights the whole tangled history of this strange American music, whose defining instruments are jug, kazoo, washtub bass, washboard, and, um, the spoon.

"I originally wrote a letter to John Sebastian's manager," says Kwait. "The intent was to film a concert of the J-Band: Some backstage interviews, throw in a couple pictures of Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band, and we're done. Unfortunately, I found out that [J-Band jug player and washtub bassist] Fritz Richmond was very ill and not able to play the show. I promised Fritz that we would go to Japan. And that started a whole other phase of the project."

When Kwait's film crew followed the J-Band on its 2006 tour of Japan, the filmmakers encountered a small but thriving jug-band scene full of intensely loyal musicians and fans. And that, according to Chasin' Gus' Ghost, is what this music has been about since its inception.

In the 1920s, jug bands emerged from the vaudeville and minstrel shows that had been popular in the South since the late 19th century. Although many of these groups dressed in blackface, they created a novel brand of American roots music — one that transcended race through the fusion of blues, jazz, Appalachian folk, and pop music. This mongrel sound spawned a string of successful recordings. But then the Stompers and all their peers, most of whom lived in minuscule rural burgs scattered throughout Tennessee, seemingly disappeared from the face of the planet — until the folk revival of the '60s, that is.

Rediscovering those old recordings, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (which included Maria "Midnight at the Oasis" Muldaur) and the Even Dozen Jug Band (which featured Sebastian) led a resurgence that worshiped Cannon. These jug groups never achieved the stature of fellow folkies like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, but they played a pivotal if overlooked role in the creation of folk rock. "It had an influence on so many '60s performers — the Grateful Dead, Lovin' Spoonful," says Kwait. "It's an amazing missing link."

In Chasin' Gus' Ghost, former Dead guitarist Bob Weir echoes Sebastian's devotion to the music, explaining how Jim Kweskin's music is one of the main reasons he and Jerry Garcia started their band. "These musicians all talked about blues in general," says Kwait. "But they got misty-eyed when we discussed these jug-band records."

Yet Kweskin, like Cannon, remains unknown to the general public. Kwait believes the jug-band revival never made it past cult status, partly because of its unsavory roots. But categorization also plays a role. "Where would I file a jug-band record in a record store?" he asks. "Is it a blues record? Some of it is clearly not. Is it a folk record? Kind of."

Well, almost lost. Besides active veterans like Sebastian and Kweskin, Chasin' Gus' Ghost unearths new jug bands making waves outside of Japan — including two all-African American trios, who have reappropriated the music's tradition.

Unfortunately, Kwait couldn't find any local jug-band lore. But once a Cleveland-area screening of Chasin' Gus' Ghost is secured for 2008 (the film has already made huge splashes in San Francisco and New York), perhaps Northeast Ohio will become a hotbed for a polka-jug-band music hybrid.

More by Justin F. Farrar

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