Episode 38 “Lloyd “The Whistler” Threlkeld”: with Douglass Fraser,

Professor and Musicologist.

Lloyd Buford Threlkeld, also known as “The Whistler” for his ability to make sweet melodious sounds emerge from his practiced nose flute, also played the guitar and sang. “Whistler and his Band” was one of the most famous jug bands of its time.

Threlkeld was born in Kentucky and in 1932 moved to Harlem in New York City. He continued performing, but had stopped recording. In May of 1935 he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital with tuberculosis where he died, later that year. He was without family or friends and, like thousands before and since in similar circumstances, was buried on Hart Island.

Listen to Professor Douglass Fraser as he takes us on a musical tour of not only jug band music, but also jazz and rock in-roll, which incredibly owed their very origins to this pioneering music.

“Guest Blog”

Jug Band Music
by Michael “Hawkeye” Herman

The good timey sounds of jug band music – infectious and influential – have enjoyed popularity since its beginnings in the “spasm” and “novelty” bands that developed in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th Century.

The spasm bands not only featured improvisation on a wide variety of standard musical instruments, but the instruments themselves were often homemade and improvised – like the jug in place of a tuba or upright bass. Hence the name, “Jug Band.” Homemade instruments like the jug, washboard, spoons, and one-string ‘bucket’ bass have a long tradition in both early African American and white American cultures.

These early New Orleans jug bands expanded to other regions like Memphis and Louisville by the turn of them 20th Century, playing jazz and blues long before the music was recognized and labeled as such. Jug bands played on the Ohio and Mississippi riverboat paddle wheelers and in many southern night clubs. They were in vaudeville, on the streets, and in traveling medicine shows. These bands created a colorful and exciting aspect to country blues, classic jazz, country & western, and hillbilly musics.

In the 1920s, some of the first jug bands to record were: Clifford Hayes (Louisville Jug Band, Old Southern Jug Band, and Dixieland Jug Blowers); Earl McDonald (The Ballard Chefs, the Original Louisville Jug Band); Buford Threlkeld (Whistler’s Jug Band); and the Birmingham Jug Band of Ben Curry (aka Ben Covington) and Jaybird Coleman. Many of these bands played popular dance band jazz, using the jug as a novelty element.

Vaudeville-blues singer Sara Martin and “The Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers, both employed jug band ensembles. Some of the biggest names in jazz, blues, and swing worked in these “novelty” bands: Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Clarence Williams, King Oliver, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Condon, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Eddie Lang, Red McKenzie, Jack Teagarden, Frankie Trumbauer Muggsy Spanier, and Glenn Miller.

The Memphis area jug bands were more firmly rooted in country blues and earlier African-American traditions. Groups such as Jack Kelly and his South Memphis Jug Band, Jed Davenport’s Beale Street Jug Band, Noah Lewis’ Jug Band, Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers recorded the great songs that became the basis for the later jug band revival: “Stealin’,” “Jug Band Music,” “On the Road Again,” “Whoa, Mule,” “Minglewood Blues,” “Walk Right In,” and many others. Blues great Ma Rainey’s tub-jug band featured the first recordings of slide guitarist Tampa Red, who later formed his own Hokum Jug Band. Blues legends Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie cut a few sides each backed up by their own jug bands.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the devastating effect of radio on record sales reduced the output of jug band music to a trickle. The sound of the washboard and tub bass, however, lasted into the 1940s as an integral part of the “Bluebird Beat” in Chicago, a form of vaudevillian-rooted classic, country, and Delta acoustic blues. Slide guitarist/singer Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” recorded in 1940, is driven by the syncopatedrhythms of Washboard Sam.

There was a revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the United States. Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In” was  a #1 hit for The Rooftop Singers in 1963; the only time a jug band song topped the charts. This sparked the formation of a number of jug bands that reached national prominence: the Orange Blossom Jug Five featuring Dave Van Ronk, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, the Even Dozen Jug Band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and many others. Jug band music was experiencing a revival in Europe as well, where it was called “Skiffle.” The word “skiffle” – meaning “rent party,” a house party with admission to raise money to pay the rent – originated in 1920s Chicago.

Jug band music certainly influenced rock & roll. The Even Dozen Jug Band featured John Sebastian, who later formed The Lovin’ Spoonful, and Steve Katz, who became a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears. Maria Muldaur was in the Even Dozen and the Jim Kweskin Jug Bands before embarking on a solo career as a blues/jazz and country artist. Zal Yanovsky had been a member of The Mugwamps Jug Band before joining The Lovin’ Spoonful. Fellow Mugwumps Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty went on to become famous as one half of The Mamas and the Papas. Mother McCree’s Jug Champions – featuring Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – evolved into the legendary rock band The Grateful Dead. Country Joe and the Fish began as The Instant Action Jug Band. Mungo Jerry, who had evolved from an earlier blues group, Good Earth, was initially a jug band. Jesse Colin Young of The Youngbloods’ first hit was “Grizzly Bear,” a jug band standard.

Tributes to jug band music can even be found in pop-rock, including “Willie and the Poor Boys” by Creedence Clearwater Revival; Sebastian’s “Younger Girl,” which used the melody of Gus Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues;” and “Jug Band Music” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. The Lovin’ Spoonful also recorded songs from the classic jug band repertoire like “Blues In The Bottle,” “Sportin’ Life,” “My Gal,” “Fishin’ Blues,” and “Wild About My Lovin’.” “Do You Believe In Magic,” a Top Ten hit, fondly pays tribute to the fun and impact of jug band music:

“If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose

If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues

Just go and listen, it’ll start with a smile

That won’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you try.”

Today there is an ever-growing interest in jug band music with bands around the globe, jug band festivals, and competitions. The infectious joy, swagger, sensitivity, and creativity of jug band music contributes to its long lasting popularity in its own right, and continuing influence on popular music and culture.

*Source: “Jug Band History” by Prof. Douglas Fraser.

Michael “Hawkeye” Herman

“One of America’s finest acoustic guitarists and blues educators.”

 – Cascade Blues Assoc./Portland, OR

Jug Band Music
by John Sebastian

I was down in Savannah, eatin’ cream and bananas, when the heat  just made me faint. I began to get cross-eyed, I thought I was lost, I’d begun to see things as they ain’t. As the relatives gathered to see what’s the matter, the doctor came to see was I dyin’. But the doctor said, “Give him jug band music. It seems to make him feel just fine”.    

I was told a little tale about a skinny-as-a-rail, eight-foot  cowboy with a headache. He was hung up in the desert swattin’ rats and tryin’ to get a drink of water with his knees a-gettin’ mud-caked. And I’ll tell  you in a sentence how he stumbled in to Memphis,Tennessee, hardly crawlin’, lookin’ dust-baked. We gave him a little water, a little bit of wine. He opened up his eyes, but they didn’t seem to shine. Then the doctor said,  “Give him jug band music. It seems to make him feel just fine”.       

So if you ever get sickly, get Sis to run quickly. To the dusty closet shelf and pull out a washboard, and play a guitar chord. And do a  little do-it-yourself and call on your neighbors to put down their labors. And come and play the hardware in time ‘Cause the doctor said,  “Give him jug band music. It seems to make him feel just fine”.

I was floatin’ in the ocean greased with suntan lotion, when I got  wiped out by a beach boy. He was surfin’ when he hit me but jumped off his board to get me and he dragged me by the armpit like a child’s toy. As we staggered into land with all the waiters eatin’ sandwiches, he tried to mooch a towel from the hoi polloi. He emptied out his eardrums, I emptied out mine.  And everybody knows that the very last line Is “the doctor said, ‘Give him jug band music. It seems to make him feel just fine”.

1965 The Lovin’Spoonful  “Daydream” Kama Sutra Records.

Buford Threlkeld and the Golden Age of Louisville Jug Bands
by Michael L. Jones

There was a continuum of music in cities along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the 19th century. Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati developed string and brass bands at the same time as New Orleans because of musicians traveling back and forth on the steamboats. So, when spasm bands – kids’ groups that used homemade instruments – started appearing in the Crescent City around 1890, similar bands also appeared in other river towns.

When the spasm concept arrived in Louisville, the city’s bourbon distilleries immediately recognized a huge promotional opportunity. Empty whiskey jugs became a prominent part of the spasm bands in Louisville and marked the beginning of Louisville jug music. The early jug ensembles were basically string bands with plucked instruments like guitars, banjos, and mandolins. 

The jug has been called the poor man’s tuba, but jug blowing requires a different embouchure than a brass instrument. The blower holds the opening inches from their face and makes a buzzing sound into it. The container acts a resonating chamber, amplifying the noise. Tone and pitch are controlled by loosening and tightening the lips and changing the angle of the jug. As an instrument, the jug has only a two-octave range, but a talented player can do a lot within that space.

There were more than 30 active jug bands plying their trade on Louisville’s streets and riverboats in the genre’s heyday. They played a mixture of old minstrel show tunes, pop standards, ragtime, and blues. Among the most popular groups was Whistler’s Jug Band led by Buford Threlkeld. He was born in Eminence, Kentucky in 1893, and moved to Louisville in 1914. Threlkeld formed a string band with his longtime collaborator Willie Black on mandolin and influential fiddler Jess Ferguson. After seeing how much money the jug bands made performing the Haymarket, Threlkeld added jug blowers B.D. Tite and Rudolph “Jazz Lips” Thompson to his band.

   Jug playing was not unique to Louisville, it was a southern phenomenon. However, Louisville considers itself the home of jug band music because it produced the first jug bands to record. In late September 1924, blues singer Sara Martin went into a New York recording studio with three members of the Louisville Jug Band to produce the first jug band recordings. Just a few days later, Threlkeld went into a studio in Richmond, Indiana, to record nine songs for Gennett Records. They included “In the Jailhouse,” an old minstrel show song that most people know today because of the Coen Brothers movie “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” 

Although Threlkeld would do other recording sessions for Gennett and, later, Okeh Records, he did not have the long recording career of jug blower Earl McDonald and fiddler Clifford Hayes, who led several groups together and separately. Part of the reason for Threlkeld’s lack of production was self-inflicted woes. 

According to researcher Fred Cox, Threlkeld had a cocaine problem and he was accused of stealing money from the purse of a guest at the Brown Hotel during a Kentucky Derby party in 1932. This made him very unpopular with the other musicians because the Brown management banned all jug bands from the premises. 

After Threlkeld’s disgrace at the Brown Hotel, he moved to New York City, where Black joined him. They did return to Louisville for the 1933 Derby but Threlkeld found himself shunned by hosts. He died in Bellevue Hospital in 1934. It is sad that Threlkeld has been largely forgotten outside of folk circles because Whistler’s Jug Band was a fine example of the African American string band tradition. There is incredible footage shot by ABC News in 1930 that shows the group on a farm performing the classic song “Foldin’ Bed,” which is also known as “Tear It Down.” The clip is interesting because it features the musicians playing along with three jug players.

Michael L. Jones is the author of “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee” and a board member of the “National Jug Band Jubilee,” which celebrates Louisville jug band legacy. 

New York City’s Hart Island: a Cemetery of Strangers, Michael T Keene