Presents from the past
Some musicians who had a true groove 40-some years ago should think twice before giving it another go when they're in their 60s. And some fans would do themselves a favor by letting the past recede gracefully, even if they're curious about what their old idols look like now and whether they can remember all those unforgettable tunes.
What a delight, then, to come across the occasional old folkie or bluesman who has grown richer over time, sort of aging to perfection - like Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin, who will join forces at 8 pm this Saturday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. When they're not sharing the stage, Mr. Muldaur will perform several numbers solo, and Mr. Kweskin will be accompanied by Matthew Berlin on bass and Matt Leavenworth on fiddle. The last time the two played together on Martha's Vineyard was at the Moon-Cusser coffee house in Oak Bluffs in the mid-1960s.
Photos by John Byrne Cooke
Mr. Muldaur first played on Martha's Vineyard as a teenager in the late 1950s. "Martha's Vineyard already had a [music] scene up-Island," he recalled recently, "with people like
Gale Huntington, Bill Keith, David Gude, Jessie Benton, Peter Cohan, and I met some of them up at Sarah Christman's in Chilmark. It was my way of getting away from Edgartown, and all the rigidness. Years later, I ended up living up-Island [from 1973 to 1984]."
While Mr. Muldaur cut his teeth at down-home musicals up-Island, Mr. Kweskin went to music school on the road. In the book "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years" by Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney (University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), Mr. Kweskin described his M.O. this way: "One way I learned to become an entertainer was to drop myself off in a city that I'd never been in before and I would go to the nearest guitar shop and find where the places were. Then I'd go and ask if I could play for free. Then, when I got on stage, it was up to me. Could I do it? That was a great education."
He played with Paul Butterfield in Chicago, Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village, Spider John Koerner in Minneapolis. He returned to Cambridge with a head full of tunes and an idea for a jug band.
After a brief fling with higher education at Boston University and a pilgrimage to New Orleans and points west, Mr. Muldaur was also living in Cambridge. Both musicians worked day jobs to get by, hanging out and playing music whenever they could - at the Club 47, at the Café Yana, and coffee houses in Cambridge and Boston.
It was a loose and easy scene, but the quality of the music was top-drawer and didn't go unnoticed for long. And the musicians noticed that there was money to made in the music business, and travel and fun.
Mr. Kweskin recalled, "I was doing a gig at the Club 47 and Maynard Solomon from Vanguard Records was there, and I had a bunch of friends up on the stage just jamming, and he came up to me how would you like to make a record with that band. And I said well, that's not band, but give me three months and I'll put a band together." And he said you're on.
At the time, Mr. Kweskin was mostly a solo act, perfecting what he calls "folky ragtime." At times he was helped out by Fritz Richmond on washtub bass.
He met Mr. Muldaur by chance. "We were booked together at a concert," Mr. Kweskin said. "He did the first half and I did the second - and I just fell in love with his music. I thought he was the best blues singer I heard of my generation, and I still do. I was 23 and he was 19 when we started the jug band. He was great, and he's better now than he was then."
And what exactly is a jug band? "Well, I guess you have to have a jug," said Mr. Kweskin. "And guitar, banjo, harmonica, kazoo, washboard, and, of course, we had Fritz Richmond who was a master at the washtub bass. He learned how to play the jug so we could call ourselves a jug band."
Why call yourselves a jug band? "It just sounded cool. And we liked that kind of music," said Kweskin. "It came from rural country bands, made up of mostly black musicians. It was blues, and popular tunes, swing or jazz tunes, and they did them in their own homemade style. A kazoo was just a substitute for a trumpet, and a jug for a bass or a tuba, and a washboard for a set of drums. It was just an inexpensive way to put a homemade instrument band together, but they did it with such beautiful music that it became high-quality stuff."
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band took their take on that high-quality stuff on a high-octane musical mystery tour, quickly gaining national recognition, and introducing a little-known genre to an ever-broader and hungrier audience. In six years, 1963-68, they recorded half a dozen records, toured steadily, and appeared on the Johnny Carson show. They were on the Main Stage at the Newport Folk Festival, a big deal at the time, every year they were together.
Photo by Don West
Lucky for Martha's Vineyard that the Moon-Cusser coffee house coincided with the Jug Band's early years. Housed in the building that Basics now occupies on Circuit Avenue, the Moon-Cusser was a true coffee house. There were carpets on the floor and they served coffee - all sorts of coffee concoctions, but none with alcohol. For loosening up, the Lampost and the Ritz were only a few steps away.
Charles Close, who spent childhood summers in Chilmark during the 1940s and 1950s, was the road manager for The Weavers, starting in '60, and a booking agent for a number of other acts based in New York.
"During the summer the Weavers took time off and that's how I kind of stumbled onto the Moon-Cusser thing," he recalled in a recent phone conversation. "I used to sell my clients on a paid vacation type of thing. I rented a big rambling farm house in Vineyard Haven and got my clients to go in there very reasonably because I fed 'em and housed them and gave them a pretty fair shake.
"The Jim Kweskin Jug Band was by far the most popular group at the club. It was a big, big draw," Mr. Close said. High praise when the list of those who played at the Moon-Cusser included Mississippi John Hurt, John Hammond, Doc Watson, Eric Anderson, Don McLean, Alan Arkin, Jose Feliciano, Judy Roderick, Phil Ochs, Tom Rush, John Hammond, the Country Gentlemen, the Simon Sisters, Tom Paxton, and Paul Butterfield.
"When the Moon-Cusser gigs came up, it was a nice circle," said Mr. Muldaur. "I could go back to where I had spent so much time, and feel comfortable, and we'd go up to Crab Creek and get some crabs or at the Moon-Cusser house, somebody'd bring us some lobsters, and we'd cook and do the usual Vineyard things.
"That's where I got to meet people. We became friends and we all hung at that house. If you played a gig you might stick around for a week. It was that loose. So when Butterfield was there, I was hanging out with him.
When Butterfield played, the mirror fell off the wall in the Drug Store that shared a wall with the club. There was a big to-do about it, about electric music versus folk music."
Martha's Vineyard also left a lasting impression on Mr. Kweskin, who has visited regularly since then. "I remember the house as well as I remember the gig," he said. "One of the gigs we did at the Moon-Cusser, Leonard Bernstein was in the audience. When you have famous people in the audience, especially musicians, and you're playing on washboards and kazoos..."
It was a wild, wonderful ride while it lasted, but there came a time. "About the fifth year of the jug band, I just got tired of it," Mr. Kweskin said. "I wanted to play music that was a little more personal, a little more serious, a little deeper, a little less hokum." He went onto make several other albums on his own, but stopped recording altogether in 1980. For the last 35 years he has worked at a high-end construction company, first in Boston and more recently in Los Angeles. "Since I broke up the Jug Band, I have never had to make my living as a musician."
Mr. Muldaur continued to record and tour actively into the mid '80s, and then took an extended break from the music business. He resurfaced as a solo act in the late '90s, playing smaller venues, touring in this country extensively and in Japan and Europe. He has recorded three CDs in the last 10 years.
A sad occasion reunited the two old hands two years ago. Said Mr. Muldaur, "We got back together because of the death of our wonderful jug player Fritz Richmond, and then we got together for a concert in Tokyo with John Sebastian, and Jimmy and I loved playing together."
Mr. Kweskin agreed, "We said, gee, this is fun, and we sound good together. And I help him out on a few tunes, and he helps me out on a few tunes."
"We've been doing a few special gigs ever since, this being one of them," said Mr. Muldaur about Saturday's concert. "We are playing some of the great tunes we used to play down at the Moon-Cusser."Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin, 8 pm, Saturday, Oct. 18, Katharine Cornell Theatre. Tickets, $22, available at Alley's General Store, Island Entertainment, and at the door.