Who can explain why certain musical trends catch fire? In the 1920s and ’30s, jug bands became popular, growing out of an older string band tradition. Jug band music is loose and irrepressible, good-time party music— made from any odd assortment of instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, washboard, wash tub bass, harmonica, kazoo and, of course, a whiskey jug. In Memphis, two figures were central in the jug band craze: Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. These groups were popular among white, as well as black audiences, often performing at parties, on the corners of famous Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, and on the back of trucks as advertisements for nearly anything.
Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was born on a plantation in northern Mississippi, the youngest of 10 brothers. He handmade his first banjo from a pan and a raccoon hide, and began entertaining in his teens for levee building camps and sawmills. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, MS where he learned to play some fiddle and guitar from members of W. C. Handy’s orchestra.
After moving to Memphis, Cannon recorded under the name “Banjo Joe” for Paramount Records, but having witnessed the popularity of Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, he formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The Jug Stompers recorded for the Victor label and produced a total of 26 sides.
Will Shade (February 5, 1898 – September 18, 1966), also known as Son Brimmer, was a native Memphian and was among the first to bring the jug band craze to town. He formed the Memphis Jug Band as a loose-knit, rotating group of musicians with endearing names like Tee Wee Blackman, Hambone Lewis, and Jab Jones, often sending out several incarnations of the same group. These bands played a mixture of low-down blues, gospel, ragtime, pop ballads, novelty numbers and anything that would make their audiences dance. Shade’s group was the more recorded, with over 60 sides for Victor between 1927 and 1930.
Jug band popularity declined in the 1930s, but these musicians continued making their kind of music and were rediscovered by revivalists in their later decades. Cannon’s song, “Walk Right In”, was made into a pop hit in the 1960s by The Rooftop Singers, and he performed on the revival circuit with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. Because of the popularity of “Walk Right In”, Stax Records released an album of the same name in 1963 with Will Shade joining his old rival, Gus Cannon.
Gus Cannon died in October 15, 1979 at the age of 96. Will Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966, and in 2008 a group of Memphis musicians held a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for his grave. The influence of The Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers was to be later felt in the iconic Memphis group, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.
image credits: R. Crumb; Herald Mosley; U.S. National Park Service; Jim Shearin; George Mitchell