Talking with musician Jim Kweskin is a bit like getting a history lesson in Americana music. Kweskin founded the 1960s Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Mel Lyman, and Bruno Wolfe, and he’s a sort of connoisseur when it comes to the jug band genre.
“I was a big fan of traditional jazz,” Kweskin, now in his early 80s, explains. “My dad had old 78s and I listened and loved it even when I was a tiny kid — Beiderbecke, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller. I was 6, 7, 8 years old.”
Then Kweskin, originally from Connecticut, went to summer camp and saw counselors playing guitars and decided he wanted to play as well. Once he got better at it, he started hanging around clubs in Boston — Club 47 in Cambridge (now Club Passim), Cafe Yana, and Golden Vanity were a few of them. “I started hanging out, learning songs, getting involved in the scene and after two or three years, started performing myself. What I discovered is I could play guitar and sing those old jazz songs and sing them like folk songs and it became a style. I’d go back to the late 20s and 30s, mostly African American musicians … and pretty much what it was is playing old-time jazz on folk music instruments.”
The jug band musicians took those old songs and played them on different instruments, not copying their arrangements, but making their own — keeping the tradition, but changing the music to suit who they were. Eventually, Kweskin also became known for his finger-picking style on the guitar. “My style of guitar playing is what I call ‘three finger picking.’ You use the thumb and first two fingers of your hand — thumb plays rhythm and the two fingers syncopate the melody. Mississippi John Hurt, Gary Davis, Merle Travis — there are so many great three finger pickers. I use it to drive the rhythm of the band, my three finger style. I like music that swings. If I say I play folk music, you’ll think of ballads and I love that music, but that’s not what I do. You can call it traditional Americana roots.”
Kweskin will bring his Jug Band to the Loft on Tuesday, August 16, at 7 pm with the Medicine Show band opening with special guest Kate Taylor. Kweskin takes the stage after, accompanied by Rose Guerin, her dad, Richie Guerin, and Miguel Samuel from Medicine Show.
Kweskin is an “uncle” of Rose Guerin’s and a good friend of her father’s. “I’m as close to an uncle as you can get,” Kweskin laughs. “I’ve known Rose since she was a baby, I know her whole family.” The family history goes way back to living together in the Fort Hill Community decades ago, where music was an integral part of day-to-day life. Along with Fort Hill, the community also had property on Martha’s Vineyard. Kweskin first played at the Mooncusser in Oak Bluffs in 1964, he said.
Kweskin’s band was playing Club 47 back in the early 60s with a group of friends, and one night the president of Vanguard Records was there and asked him if he’d like to make a record with the band. But the band members would change night to night — a fiddler, harmonica player, guys who played the washboard or washtub, a gang of musicians who were friends of Kweskin.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s not a band, but I’d like to make a record,’” Kweskin says. It took a couple of weeks, but he pulled together the best musicians he could find and they rehearsed for a few months and then made the record. The band stayed together for five years, recording a half dozen albums and a couple of greatest hits compilations with Vanguard.
According to Kweskin’s website, before long, there were jug bands all over the country — “a San Francisco jug band that became the Grateful Dead, a Los Angeles jug band that became the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and a New York jug band that became the Lovin’ Spoonful.”
Miguel Samuel said he’s thrilled to be joining Kweskin onstage at the Loft. “We’re all super jazzed to open for Jim,” Samuel said. “He’s influenced so many great artists, including Dylan and the Grateful Dead. I grew up listening to his jug band recordings, and in college had a group called the Mission Hill Hogstompers that covered some of his classics like ‘Stealin’’, ‘Overseas Stomp,’ and ‘My Gal.’”
Samuel played guitar with Kweskin and Rose Guerin at the M.V. Museum last year and said it was “totally a dream come true for me.” He says he guesses he did alright because he’s also going to back Kweskin at the Loft next Tuesday. For Kate Taylor, opening for the Jim Kweskin Jug Band is like taking a trip down memory lane.
“I saw the Jim Kweskin Jug Band when I was barely a teen,” Taylor remembers. “I had a mad crush on Kweskin! I still have a massive fan crush on him. He and his music are the real deal. He has tapped the golden vein of America’s heritage music, and he delivers it masterfully.”
Part of the appeal with Kweskin’s performance is the way he connects with the audience.
“When I get up on stage, I involve the audience,” Kweskin says. “I’m hanging out with them. I really like to include them in the show and not perform at them. I get them doing songs …
When I was performing not too long ago with a very friendly audience, I said to them if you do a song someone else wrote or performed, it’s called covering it. Well, back in the old days six or seven or eight versions of it would come out in different genres. If I do a song that the last time it was recorded was 90 or 100 years ago, am I still covering it? Someone in the audience said, ‘No, you’re uncovering it.’”
He says he likes to bring these songs to people who maybe have never heard them, and Kweskin’s plan is to do it again next Tuesday night.
Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Rose Guerin, Richie Guerin, and Miguel Samuel. Opening act Medicine Show with special guest Kate Taylor. Tuesday, August 16, 7 pm, at the Loft. Visit bit.ly/kweskinloft for tickets.