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DVD Review: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost
[Ezzie Films (2010)]

John B. Sebastian (Photo by Craig Harris)

With their 1966 hit, “Jug Band Music,” John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful ushered the ragtime-meets-the-blues era of jugs, washboard basses, and kazoos into the electricity-driven world of rock and roll. Little did they know, within a few months, the jug band tradition would go into a deep recession, not re-emerging again until more than 4 decades had passed.

Over the past couple of years, however, new jug band recordings by Maria Muldaur (“Maria Muldaur & Her Garden Of Joy”), and the reuniting of Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur for an album (“Texas Sheiks”) and tour, have resurrected the long-dormant musical genre with joy, enthusiasm, and a deeply rooted reverence for a century-old musical legacy. With Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, the first full-length documentary to examine the jug band phenomenon, filmmaker/attorney Todd Kwait celebrates the music’s roots and still-awakening evolution.

With Sebastian as a guide, Kwait embarks on a journey that starts in the Memphis of the 1920s, where jug and banjo player Gus Cannon, along with Blind Blake, Banjo Joe, and the Memphis Jug Band, lay the foundations, and goes on to travel to Sweden, where late author Bengt Olsson (“Memphis Blues”) offers one of his final interviews, and Japan, where a visit is made to the Yokohama Jug Band Festival. While archival video from jug band’s early days is limited to a 1930’s clip of Whistler & His Jug Band often seen in musical documentaries, the roots of the music are thoroughly explored through vintage recordings and interviews with such sources of information as Sleepy John Estes’ 2 songs and Fred Montgomery, who was mayor of Henning County, Tennessee during the days of influential harmonica player/songwriter Noah Lewis. Yank Rachell is seen performing one of his final shows in 1997. Erik Darling, whose group, the Rooftop Singers, had a major hit in 1963 with Cannon’s “Walk Right In,” though Cannon remained un-credited until 1969, is heard singing his harmony part and talking about the song’s success.

Jim Kweskin (Photo by Craig Harris)

The importance of the Kweskin Jug Band is emphasized through rare footage, including an early-60s tune with original lead singer David Simon (Bruno Wolf), and more-recent interviews with Kweskin, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, and an obviously ailing Fritz Richmond, who passed away before the film’s completion. The reunited Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur are heard singing several songs as a duo and join with Japanese jug band, the Southern Chefs, for a cross-cultural treatment of Gus Cannon’s trademark tune “Stealin’.” Little information, though, is provided about the still-mysterious disappearances of Simon or the Kweskin Jug Band’s visionary, Mel Lymon.

Bob Weir, who began his career with Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions before they morphed into the Warlocks, and then the Grateful Dead, offers his views throughout the video. Chicago-based blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, acoustic blues duo Annie Raines and Paul Richelle, African-American trio Sankofa Strings, and Sebastian’s J Band provide additional musical moments and insightful recollections.

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

[See also Driftwood’s review of Jug Band Extravaganza, an album closely tied to the release of this DVD.]

One comment on “DVD Review: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost

  1. However, the filmmakers or the reviewer left out Arlo Guthrie, who covered Gus Cannon’s “Stealin” with such wild youthful abandon on his debut studio album for Warner Brothers in 1969 titled Runnin’ Down The Road (featuring a teenage slide guitarist named Ry Cooder and super pickers Jumpin’ James Burton and the soon-to-be-deceased
    but very much alive here Clarence White).

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