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Jim Kweskin

+ {Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band}

Whether your bag be jugband, ragtime, bluegrass or indeed vaudevillean trad-folk, singing guitarist JIM KWESKIN put the fun back into music at a time when the Greenwich Village folk-revival scene of the early-mid 60s was a bit too self-contained.
Born July 18, 1940, Stamford, Connecticut, Jim grew up listening to old-timey music, and while he was a student at Boston University, he became impassioned by The Hoppers (John “Fritz” Richmond, John “Buz” Marten and John Nagy), who performed regularly at the Café Yana in Harvard Square. The fact that he invited said Richmond (a washtub bass player) into his own JIM KWESKIN & THE JUG BAND ensemble was proof enough of his enthusiasm for both the man and his music; but this was after Fritz was drafted into the army and Jim spent time in California. Another equally talented and motivated player to team up with JK was blues buff, GEOFF MULDAUR, whom he’d met at a double-billed gig at Boston’s Community Church in early ’63. Indeed, this was a pivotal moment in KWESKIN’s career as he was almost immediately signed to Maynard Solomon’s Vanguard Records. Needing to book a full-time studio band, Jim recalled Richmond and Muldaur, who also helped pick out Mel Lyman (banjo and harmonica) and relatively unknown Bob Siggins (banjo and vocals); Bruno Wolfe also depped on some vox.
Sometimes titled “Unblushing Brassiness” (due to a misleading stamp on the sleeve), on JIM KWESKIN AND THE JUG BAND (1963) {*7} the Cambridge-based quintet were under way with a mixed fun bag of free-for-all, old-timey rags highlighted by `Newport News’, `Borneo’, `My Gal’ and opener `Washington At Valley Forge’.
Greatly impressed by the band during a gig at the Bottom Line, or at least one of its faculty, Maria D’Amato (of the EVEN DOZEN JUG BAND) almost immediately joined up and soon married Geoff. With Lyman also out of the equation by March ’64, it left room for KWESKIN and Co to enlist renowned bluegrass banjo maestro, Bill Keith, who’d served his time with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys.
JUG BAND MUSIC (1965) {*7} was another set to warm the cockles of one’s heart, recalling good old days (from Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon, UNCLE DAVE MACON, BLIND BOY FULLER, et al) and some not that far back via versions of SPIDER JOHN KOERNER’s `Good Time Charlie’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Memphis’ and Leiber-Stoller’s `I’m A Woman’ – but that bloody kazoo, man!
Diverting from his jug-band for a time, JIM KWESKIN issued his debut solo LP, RELAX YOUR MIND (1966) {*5}, although there were credits for Lyman and Richmond. An interesting enough record, it showcased what amounts to be stripped-down tracks such as trad-cues `I Ain’t Ever Satisfied’ (with wife Marilyn Kweskin on lead), `Guabi Guabi’ (with Fritz on co-vox), `Buffalo Skinners’ and `I Got Mine’ (the latter two live cuts from Cambridge’s Club 47). Of the covers (all blues numbers incidentally), MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT’s `My Creole Belle’ and LEADBELLY’s title track sat equally alongside Chris Bouchillon’s `Hannah’ and Grandpa Jones’ `Eight More Miles To Louisville’.
The loyal fanbase of JIM KWESKIN & THE JUG BAND were in their element once again with the release of SEE REVERSE SIDE FOR TITLE (1967) {*7}, a record that again took source material from the likes of the HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS (`Blues In The Bottle’), CHUCK BERRY (`Christopher Columbus’), MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT (`Richland Woman’), Noah Lewis’ `Viola Lee Blues’, Leroy Carr’s `Papa’s On The Housetop’ and Frankie Newton’s `Oynx Hop’; for a bit of comic relief try out `Never Swat A Fly’ and `Storybook Ball’.
JIM KWESKIN’s JUMP FOR JOY (1967) {*6}, was definitely one for the Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk brigade, augmented as it was by the Neo-Passe Jazz Band, Ted Butterman and Marty Gross; early 20th century recitals like `Melancholy Baby’ and Gershwin’s `Jazzbo Brown’ might give one an indication of its contents, although KWESKIN embellished the songs with panache and honesty.
Adding fiddler Richard Greene to the proceedings, the group’s first venture for Reprise Records, GARDEN OF JOY (1967) {*6}, embraced C&W bluegrass as much as old-timey jugband, Maria’s smoochy vocals at times giving the set character. `Minglewood’, `The Circus Song’, `The Sheik Of Araby’ and `When I Was A Cowboy’, came off the brightest and most inventive. Together with only Richmond on board (MARIA MULDAUR only guested), Vanguard, misleadingly it seemed, delivered the part-posthumous set, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THOSE GOOD OLD DAYS AT CLUB FORTY SEVEN IN CAMBRIDGE MASSACHUSETTS WITH JIM KWESKIN AND HIS FRIENDS (1968) {*5}, an album shaped by versions of SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, JIMMIE RODGERS’ `I Had A Dream Last Night’ and JELLY ROLL MORTON’s `Buddy Bolden’s Blues’. GEOFF MULDAUR (and then wife, Maria) grouped together for a few releases, although it was their subsequent solo work that would give them critical and/or commercial success; meanwhile, Richmond became a noted producer/engineer until his death in 2005.
Starring Mel Lyman (as it states on the sleeve artwork), JIM KWESKIN’S AMERICA (1971) {*5} found Jim on the country-blues trail, tracks this time stemming from MANCE LIPSCOMB, Gene Autry, Merle Travis, MARLE HAGGARD and one from GUTHRIE-LEADBELLY, `Ramblin’ Round Your City’.
Taking a sabbatical, one could say, when he joined Lyman in his Fort Worth quasi-religious cult-like commune, KWESKIN disappeared off the radar, that is, until the mysterious disappearance of Lyman in April 1978 – who’s never been found since. That same year, Jim was back with a comeback solo LP, uncannily-titled JIM KWESKIN (LIVES AGAIN) {*4}; SWING ON A STAR (1980) {*4} was released shortly afterwards. Back to the fore post-millennium, JIM KWESKIN (& Band) – with Samoa Wilson – returned to his roots via NOW AND AGAIN (2003) {*5}; ENJOY YOURSELF (IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK) (2009) {*5} harked back to his days of yore and, er, fun.
The Vanguard visionary mounted a comeback of sorts several years on and, after a solo album, IN THE 21st CENTURY (2015) {*6}, JIM KWESKIN hopped back on the happy trail for a fresh finger-pickin’ set with old mucker GEOFF MULDAUR. Reflecting days on the back-porch a-singin’ and a-playin’ ‘till the sun went down, the pair were in the comfort zone on PENNY’S FARM (2016) {*7}. Smooth as silk for a duo now well into their twilight years, one would have to travel far and wide to find better quality versions of `The Cuckoo’, `Diamond Joe’, `The Boll Weevil’, `Fishing Blues’ and `Down On Penny’s Farm’.
There were few old-timey-styled guitar pickers remaining who could get away with album title, UNJUGGED {*6}, but in 2017, an invitation by Hornbeam Recordings to first-foot the UK enabled the man leeway to fire out such a set. Just as corny, `The Mermaid Song’, was his “tale/tail” of his meeting with a certain siren, whilst guests BONNIE DOBSON, bassist Tali Trow, fiddler Ben Paley and harmonica man Bill Denton, peppered remaining tracks, including highlights `Days Of ‘49’, `Staggerlee’ and `Living In The Country’.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Sep2016-Jun2019

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Comments

  1. Bob Bach

    I first saw you, Jim, in a downstairs folk club called The Riverboat in the Yorkville area of Toronto in about 1965. You were supported by a very capable studio guitarist, also an American who had settled in Toronto, and whom I eventually got to know before he headed west to Albert and became a solo act including singing. I just can’t remember his name.
    I had become a fan of Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band a short while before, but my ending up in that club that evening was total happenstance. After that evening, I bought one or more of your records.
    A month or a year later, l wound up in the Pilot Tavern in Toronto sitting beside Bill Keith, who was in town for a concert. We spoke a little about his banjo playing with the band, and a lot about a Jaguar 3.4 into which he had shoehorned a Chevy V8 – quite a project.
    Having just read your biography, I find that you and I have birthdays one year and one day apart. I am 364 days older than you. Life is still very good for me, and I hope for you.
    Now I need to dig up some of your music and put it on my phone.

  2. Bob Bach

    Jim: His name was, and is, Amos Garrett. During that set, a voice from the audience requested a ragtime tune, and you turned to Amos to respond. Now I need to remember the name of that number.

    Within a year or so, I got to know the individual who made that request – his name was Art Armstrong. He knew Amos, and through him I got to know Amos as well. Art and I worked on our guitar playing technique for a number of years, and occasionally sat down with Amos to watch a master at work. I don’t think we ever learned anything from him – he was just out of our league.

    In the spirit of “never quit”, I have downloaded your finger picking video, and will try to keep up my practice to see whether I can improve. Back in the 1960’s, I used to finger pick a version of Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train, but I lost that ability due to lack of practice. I know you will understand when I say that trying to learn or relearn some things on the guitar, or almost anything else, is not easy when one is in one’s eighth decade. I’ve invited one of my granddaughters to join me. I expect to be left behind very quickly.

    But I’m trying.

    All the best to you and yours.

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