Photography by Catherine Sebastian
If you remember the early days of the folk music scare, as Bob Dylan used to call it, you probably recall hearing jug band music. It was wildly popular in the early to mid-‘60s —especially among college students in the northeast — enjoyed a modest resurgence in the ‘90s, and is still huge in foreign countries like Japan, where American music is both studied and emulated. The deceptively simple-sounding music played by casually dressed musicians on instruments you could make at home (if you lived on a farm, that is) was fun and accessible, like you could easily join in if you had a kazoo in your pocket. In fact, it’s one of the earliest forms of American roots music. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian describes it as “an outgrowth of blues, medicine shows, vaudeville, lunchtime entertainment in factory towns, and loose aggregations of bluesmen — some permanent, some hastily assembled — in southern factory towns like Memphis, Louisville, and Brownsville. Because their audiences varied, these bands were some of the first units playing music from more than one culture,” he said.
In one way or another, jug band music has been a major influence on bands from the Lovin’ Spoonful to the Grateful Dead. Now, in 2012, Lambertville and Long Beach Island, NJ have both played host to a celebration of jug band music that highlighted the genre in photography and film, with help from upstate New Yorkers Sebastian and his wife Catherine, who have each contributed to the music’s documentation.
On two weekend nights last Spring, the boutique cinema Acme Screening Room in Lambertville showed Todd Kwait’s documentary film Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, to overflow crowds. Following the film, director Kwait and John Sebastian, a founding member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, one of those that started the craze many decades ago, answered questions from the audience. And before the screenings, visitors to the theater lobby could see gorgeous prints of Catherine Sebastian photographs taken during the filming of the movie and at other jug band performances where her husband participated. Photograph subjects included Maria and Geoff Muldaur, the late Fritz Richmond, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines and Jimmy Vivino – all jug band vets.
“There is a line in one of my husband’s songs— ‘Jug Band music certainly has a hold on me’ — that perfectly describes how I felt after being exposed to this contagiously wonderful genre,” she said. “I could not get it out of my head, finally had to gather up 25 years of photographs from all these shows and recording sessions and see if I could share the sense of fun and musicianship these guys bring to it in a visual show.”
The film grew out of Kwait’s chance introduction to jug band music when he attended a performance of John Sebastian’s J Band, a vehicle for the late 90s renaissance of enthusiasm for roots music, which included Richmond.
“I was drawn to the concert because I was a John Sebastian fan, I really didn’t know anything about jug band music,” Kwait said. “I was so taken with the performance that night that I began to seek out whatever research there was on jug band music and there wasn’t a lot. It occurred to me that this would be a very interesting subject for a documentary.”
Kwait wrote a letter to Sebastian’s manager and to his surprise and delight, got a positive response. Richmond’s illness had just become known and Sebastian thought the film might be an opportunity to document a J Band performance while he could still play.
Sadly, Richmond was too sick to play a concert, but Kwait was able to interview him for the film and learn about the Japanese love for jug band music and the Yokohama Jug Band Festival.
“A number of these Japanese jug players had written Fritz and sought him out to give them pointers about playing the instrument,” Kwait said. “I think he also may have even supplied jugs to the Japanese players.”
Richmond had visited Yokohama on a tour with Geoff Muldaur, his old cohort from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, right after one of their jug band festivals and got tapes and records of some of the Japanese bands. He told Kwait that to tell the story of jug band music, he needed to go to Japan and the Yokohama jug band festival. Richmond died in November of 2005, about a month after the interview was filmed and in April of 2006, many of his former bandmates accompanied Kwait on a pilgrimage to carry out his wish.
Also on the trip was Catherine Sebastian, who documented the experience with her camera.
The American musicians made a surprise appearance at the festival – a 12-hour jug band marathon on multiple stages with bands ranging from enthusiastic amateur to true professionals — and played a free concert in Tokyo, also depicted in the film. The Japanese footage is remarkable for the musicianship of the young Japanese players, as well as for some moments of great fun, like when some young players realize that among their audience is the revered Jim Kweskin.
“They idolized these fellows,” Kwait said. “John Sebastian had an enormously successful career in the US, but Kweskin and Muldaur and Fritz Richmond are more cult figures in the folklore of the United States. But in Japan, it was like I brought the Rolling Stones.”
The turnout and response to the jug band weekend in Lambertville was somewhat more subdued, but no less enthusiastic. Said Gary Cohen, who organized the multi-media event, “People seemed to love the film. Our website and Facebook page contained a number of messages from people who are now devotees of jug band music. Those who came also embraced the addition of Catherine’s wonderful photographs and the some pre-show jug band mood music by Exile on Ferry Street. For those of us at the Acme Screening Room, it was a thrilling weekend, and one of our most successful.”
More recently, the Long Beach Island Branch of the Ocean County Library again hosted a show of Catherine Sebastian’s jug band photos, with a screening of the documentary to follow on July 14.
All photographs © Catherine Sebastian