Early in the evenin', just about suppertime
Over by the courthouse they're starting to unwind
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp

Down on the corner, out here in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin'
Bring a nickel, tap your feet

A certain mental image comes to mind when I think about a jug band. From what I can ascertain it’s a uniquely form of American music that started somewhere in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains or deep within the Ozarks. The residents had little access to the outside world and in order to entertain themselves had to make do with what was on hand. When it came to music that consisted of the mostly found, discarded or household items that could serve another purpose. I guess you could call it an early form of recycling.

Rooster hits the washboard and people just got to smile
Blinky thumps the gut bass and solos for a while
Poorboy twangs the rhythm out on his kalamazoo
And Willy goes into a dance and doubles on kazoo

Down on the corner, out here in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin'
Bring a nickel, tap your feet

As my mind’s eye sees it, the members of a jug band all wore hand me down clothes that had seen better days and probably hadn’t bathed for a spell. Their beards were long, their hair scraggly (picture the male cast of Duck Dynasty) and they had no formal musical training.

A typical jug band’s instruments mostly likely consisted of a discarded jug that used to carry moonshine, a washboard, a washtub bass, some spoons and an early form of a kazoo which consisted of some tissue paper and a comb. If they were lucky, they could make a crude form of guitar (the kalamazoo in the song) by using string and a hollowed out gourd that was flattened on one side and had a hole cut through the other. A banjo mostly likely consisted of an old guitar neck and a metal pie plate.

You don't need a penny just to hang around
But if you've got a nickel, won't you lay your money down?
Over on the corner there's a happy noise
People come from all around to watch the magic boys

Down on the corner, out in here the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin'
Bring a nickel, tap your feet

Those lines were probably true right about up until the time of the Great Depression when it became more important for people to make money to feed their families rather than make music. When you combine that with access to radio, the jug band went into a slow decline.

Then, with the revival of folk music in the 50’s and 60’s, jug bands once again became popular. Some even managed to get their work recorded and played on the airwaves. Here’s a shortlist of some their long forgotten names.

  • The Orange Blossom Jug Five
  • Jolly Joe’s Jug Band
  • The Jim Kweskin Jug Band
  • The Even Dozen Jug Band
  • The 13th Floor Elevators
  • The Ffilharmonious Jug Band

Walk right in, sit right down
Daddy, let your mind roll on
Walk right in, sit right down
Daddy, let your mind roll on

We’re all probably familiar with those lyrics. They’re from the song “Walk Right In” but did you know they were originally recorded way back in 1929 by a group called Cannon's Jug Stompers and later resurrected in 1963 by a group called The Rooftop Singers and it climbed to #1 on the pop charts. They even performed at the famous Newport Folk Festival that same year before fading into obscurity.

Many well known (and not so well known) musicians can trace their roots back to their early start in jug bands. Here’s a short list of some them that had an affinity for this style of music.

John Sebastian - He of The Lovin' Spoonful got his start playing in jug band revival groups.

Country Joe & the Fish - Got their start in a band called “The Instant Action Jug Band”.

Mungo Jerry - Got his start in a band called the Good Earth and who in my opinion, wrote one of the best anthems to the summer of all time. Click on the link to read a little bit more about him.

Grateful Dead - That’s right, many members of those pioneers of so-called acid rock and jams that could last upwards an hour got their start in something called “Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions” whose members included Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Ron McKernan.

Although the music of jug bands still remains a bit obscure and the you probably won’t find many of the band themselves on your favorite radio station they still retain a form of popularity. Evidence of this can be seen in The Annual Battle of the Jug Bands that has been held in Minneapolis, Minnesota each and every year since 1980. Over 30 bands are invited to play where they vie for the “Coveted Hollywood Waffle Iron” trophy.

Starting in 2004, one of the birthplaces of jug band music, Louisville, Kentucky holds The National Jug Band Jubilee.

Moving a bit northwest, you can find the Chicago Battle of the Jug Bands which has been going on since 2007. It should come as no surprise that the winner of the competition receives a gilded sausage stuffer that goes by the name of “Stuffy”

If you head further out west, you can find the San Francisco Jug Band Festival that has been going on since 2006.

Down on the corner, out in here the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin'
Bring a nickel, tap your feet

When all is said and done, I guess jug band music will never truly die. Maybe that’s because in these days of modern technology people want to return to a simpler, less complicated time. Or maybe it’s just because it's damn good music.

Either way, I’m bringin’ my nickel and tappin’ my feet. I hope you do to.

Lyrics to “Down on the Corner” originally recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the album Willy and the Poor Boys back in 1969.