The Juggernaut Jug Band
Joy on a budget
by James M. Manheim
The Juggernaut Jug Band Roscoe Goose, the Amazing Mr. Fish, Big Daddy T, and Smiley Habanero come from Louisville, where jug band music began. If you're not familiar with jug band music, it's the closest thing yet devised to an antidote for Michigan's monochrome winter. One of many examples of African Americans' ability to wring something joyful from the most limited of resources, jug band music developed around 1900 and quickly spread up and down the midwestern river system. At the heart of a jug band are a liquor-jug bass, blown tuba style, and, typically, a kazoo as lead. The sound might be filled out with a banjo, a fiddle, a mandolin, or whatever else is available and that's where things can get really out of hand.
The folk revivalists of the 1960s rediscovered jug band music through the few recordings made during its heyday. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band shared psychedelic stages with the likes of Janis Joplin and left its mark on the Grateful Dead and the Lovin' Spoonful, whose occasional old-timey flavor came straight from jug band music. Another group it inspired was the Juggernaut Jug Band, which has been carrying on uninterrupted, with changes in personnel but with a consistent core, since the days of free love and the festooning of state troopers with flowers. The group pays homage to its 1960s origins with jug band covers of Dylan's "Desolation Row," the Who's "Pinball Wizard," and other songs that you wouldn't think playable on a liquor jug.
Not to analyze this thing and take all the fun out of it, but it's worth asking why, when so much of 1960s culture is now just quaint pages in scrapbooks, this manifestation should have lasted so long. One answer has to do with how someone who succeeds at being a goofball needs a serious side lurking underneath. The Juggernaut Jug Band operates at a high level of musicianship, and its shows
are well thought out and professional. Another clue to the band's durability lies in how it's done something that seems to elude nearly all successful Americans: it's kept things on a small scale. The Juggernaut Jug Band has quite an active touring schedule in schools, resorts, and the occasional corner bar.
Its annual Ann Arbor stop this year it's Friday, February 4 is at the Green Wood Coffeehouse in the lovely glassed-in Methodist church of the same name, in the woods off Green Road. This may well be Ann Arbor's family-friendliest musical venue, and the music of the Juggernaut Jug Band is certainly fun for kids. The sense of wonder instilled by the big contraption the band brings along loaded with whistles, horns, a washboard, and half a dozen other instruments is reason enough to bring the family. But there's quite a remarkable kind of joy here for adults, as well.
[Originally published in February, 2005.]