The Memphis Jug Band was an American musical group in the
late 1920s and early to mid 1930s. The band featured harmonicas, violins,
mandolins, banjos, and guitars, backed by washboards, kazoo, and jugs blown
to supply the bass; they played in a variety of musical styles. The band
recorded almost a hundred titles.
Between 1927 and 1934 various African-American musicians in the Memphis,
Tennessee, area grouped around singer, songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica
player Will Shade (also known as Son Brimmer or Sun Brimmer). The personnel
of this jug band varied from day to day, with Shade booking gigs and
arranging recording sessions. The band functioned as a training ground for
musicians who would go on to success with careers of their own.
Among the recorded members of the Memphis Jug Band were (at various times)
Will Shade (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Charlie Burse (pronounced Bursey)
(guitar, mandolin, and vocals), Charlie Nickerson (piano and vocals),
Charlie Pierce (violin), Charlie Polk (jug), Tewee Blackman (vocals,
guitar), “Hambone” Lewis (jug), Jab Jones (jug, piano, vocals ), Johnny
Hodges/Hardge (piano), Ben Ramey (vocals and kazoo), Casey Bill Weldon
(guitar and vocals), Memphis Minnie (guitar and vocals), Vol Stevens
(vocals, violin, and mandolin), Milton Robie (violin), Otto Gilmore/Gilmer
(drums and woodblocks), and Robert Burse (drums). Vocals were also provided
by Hattie Hart, Memphis Minnie, Jennie Mae Clayton (Shade’s wife), and
Minnie Wallace, with Charlie Burse often contributing harmony parts to
Shade’s lead vocals. In the case of Memphis Minnie, the Memphis Blues Band
accompanied her on two sides for Victor Records, recorded in 1930 when the
band's career was winding down. Some members also contributed to gospel
recordings, either uncredited or as part of the Memphis Sanctified Singers.
Their large membership pool allowed the Memphis Jug Band the flexibility to
play a mixture of ballads, dance tunes, knock-about novelty numbers, and
The group recorded under several names on various recording labels, but
today are most often referred to as the Memphis Jug Band. Alternate names
found on record labels include the Picaninny Jug Band, Memphis Sanctified
Singers, the Carolina Peanut Boys, the Dallas Jug Band, the Memphis Sheiks,
the Jolly Jug Band and recordings credited to the individual performers
Hattie Hart, Minnie Wallace, Casey Bill Weldon, Charlie Nickerson, Vol
Stevens, Charlie Burse, “Poor Jab” Jones, and Will Shade, but performed with
accompaniment by other Memphis Jug Band members.
The Memphis Jug Band has been described as having a remarkable sound due in
part to the unusual instruments. Although most songs included a rhythm
guitar and either a jug, a kazoo or a harmonica as a lead instrument or
sometimes a mandolin or violin. The sound of the instruments ofen conveyed a
"raspy, buzzing sound" that a British music scholar who did not know the
band personally stated was close to the musical aesthetic of Africa, and in
which, he said, the jug and kazoo represented the voices of animals or
ancestral spirits. Shade never told scholars why he liked this sound, and
since many of the performers were also part Native American, it is a good
question as to which ancestors—if any—the kazoo was supposed to represent.
Performances and recordings
The Memphis Jug Band played wherever they could find engagements, and busked
in local parks. They were popular among white as well as black audiences. In
total, they made more than eighty recordings, first for Victor Records,
then—as the Picaninny Jug Band—for the Champion-Gennett label, and finally
for OKeh Records. The Victor recordings were made in Memphis and Atlanta,
Georgia between 1927 and 1930, the Champion-Gennetts in Richmond, Indiana,
in August 1932, while the final sessions on Okeh were held in Chicago in
November 1934. By that time, their style of music was no longer in
demand, and Shade was no longer able to keep the musicians assembled as a
group, although many of the individuals carried on working around Memphis
until the 1940s. Their recording "Stealin', Stealin'" was included on the
compilation album The Country Blues issued on Folkways Records in 1959.
In 1963 Shade recorded one last time with another Memphian, 79-year-old Gus
Cannon, former leader of Cannon’s Jug Stompers, another popular jug band.
They recorded the album Walk Right In, on Stax Records, a result of The
Rooftop Singers having made Cannon's "Walk Right In" into a number one
single. Will Shade on jug and former Memphis Jug Band member Milton Roby
on washboard perform a series of thirteen traditional songs, plus Cannon's
great hit "Walk Right In," including "Narration," "Kill It," "Salty Dog,"
"Going Around," "The Mountain," "Ol' Hen", "Gonna Raise A Ruckus Tonight,"
"Ain't Gonna Rain No More," "Boll-Weevil," "Come On Down To My House," "Make
Me a Pallet on Your Floor," "Get Up In The Morning Soon," and "Crawdad
Hole." The album is almost an audio documentary tour through different
corners of Cannon's life and career that, ideally, might've run to several