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Chasin' Gus' Ghost takes the viewer on a journey back to the roots of early blues and jazz.

Movie Review: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost

At the Woodstock Film Festival, which opens October 10 in Bearsville, New York, an independent film about jug music and those most known for performing it, directed by Todd Kwait, will make its premiere. Chasin' Gus' Ghost will be shown on October 13 at 10:00 pm at the Bearsville Theater.

Early in the film, we learn that Kwait's interest in jug music began when he heard his favorite artist, John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, credited Gus Cannon and jug music as early inspiration on many of the songs he wrote, particularly "Younger Girl." That kernel of information sent him on a journey that began with reading books and listening to early recordings, and then took him on a physical road trip, tracing the music back to its roots. Chasin' Gus' Ghost is the documentation of that journey.

Jug music, for the unaware, is played with homemade instruments. Obviously, a jug is used and blown into. Playing a jug is somewhat similar to playing a brass instrument because pitch can be adjusted by lip tension, though the sound is very different. Other popular jug band instruments include the washtub bass, washboard, spoons, stovepipe, and comb and tissue paper, which produces a sound similar to a kazoo. Often the musicians traveled with medicine man or vaudeville type shows, and the earliest recordings of the music seemed to come from Louisville, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee, two stops made on the journey Kwait takes us on.

Before watching this screener, I had the perception the style of music was a precursor to early country and bluegrass. I suppose it was because of the rural communities it originated from, and I'm sure there is a connection there as well, but as the musicians interviewed explained their influences and the evolution, the effects on blues and jazz became blatantly obvious. John Sebastian, David Grisman, Charlie Musselwhite, Erik Darling, and Maria Muldaur were just some of the musicians interviewed. Taj Mahal lends his voice to quote Gus Cannon.

On this road trip, the music is traced back starting with John Sebastian and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead through folk inspired rock, folk, blues, and jazz to its very roots. We learn that although many of the songs were familiar to and loved by many, a good number of the songwriters and early players died penniless. When they are able to track down Gus Cannon's grave it is very plainly marked. The search for the grave of Noah Lewis, who is known for revolutionizing harmonica playing, ends in failure.

The evolution isn't the only process examined; Kwait also looks at the instruments popular to jazz and blues and their ancestry, as well as how the playing evolved. The harmonica is an example of one such instrument. It started out as something the musician would blow into to obtain the notes, until early jazz and blues players began drawing to get different tones. Later amplification and manipulation bought out a saxophone-similar resonance needed to achieve complex melodic lines.

Though jug band music may be considered the roots of American music, it is popular behind the boarders this country. The film makers also spend some time in Japan, attending the shows of modern performers, who are preserving and still performing the music, and work with some of them to execute a tribute show.

The music showcased is well presented, especially when you take into consideration the age of many of the recordings. The recent performances and tributes are both enjoyable and nicely filmed.

For anyone who has an interest in not only the history of music and how it developed and genres were defined, this film will be enjoyable. If you are also a fan of blues, jazz, and American roots — or jug — music it's not to be missed. Chasin' Gus' Ghost is premiering at the Bearsville Theater on 291 Tinker Street on October 13 at 10:00 pm as part of the Woodstock Film Festival. Tickets are $10.00. Dates and times of future screenings can be found at the film's website.

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