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The once-mighty folk label takes us back to the days when jugs were a hip musical instrument...

Music Review: Vanguard Visionaries: Jim Kweskin

Back when yours truly was a college student, if you wanted to establish your politically progressive cred, you had to own at least one Vanguard Records platter. The New York-based record company was one of the first to challenge the entertainment industry's black list in the fifties (putting out new releases by then political pariahs like Paul Robeson and the Weavers) and was home to a host of bluesfolk (Mississippi John Hurt, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, et al) and uppity folk singers (Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, Rambling Jack Elliot, etc.) in the sixties. And though Vanguard didn't get into rock as firmly as fellow folk label Elektra Records would, it was the home of Country Joe & the Fish Cheer – decidedly a counter-cultural touchstone all by itself.

The label was bought up by Welk Music Group (of Lawrence Welk fame) back in the 80's and has since soldiered on, but for most folk & blues buffs, Vanguard's peak period would have to be the 1960s. In part to remind folks of those glory days, the label has started issuing a series of budget retrospectives entitled "Vanguard Visionaries," ten-track CD sets devoted to all of their company's big acts. Been listening to several of these little discs recently, so let's take a look back at some of the background music I remember from too many late-nite undergraduate political argument sessions back in 1969…

My first choice would have to be the guy whose original Vanguard long-players took up the most space on my dorm room record shelf: Jim Kweskin. Of all the artists on Vanguard's roster, Kweskin was the least sternly political – his primary medium was a jug band, fergawdsakes – though his career would later take a decidedly strange turn into counter-cultural cultishness. Jug Bands enjoyed a brief vogue in the folk community in the sixties and were a proving ground for rock artists like Jerry Garcia and John Sebastian, but the only one to have an extensive recording legacy was Kweskin's group. The loose-knit Boston-based collective released three albums on Vanguard – and a fourth on Warner Bros. – before disbanding. Kweskin himself put out three more solo albums for the label.

The "Vanguard Visionaries" set is credited just to Jim Kweskin, though the photo on the cover is a black-and-white cropping of the cover to the first Jug Band LP. The band's most famous alumnus, Maria Muldaur isn't even repped in the picture, though one of her better tracks, "Richland Woman Blues," is thankfully included in the set. Though Kweskin was the group's top billed singer, the band had a variety of personable lead vocalists – Maria, her bluesy vocalist husband Geoff Muldaur, nasally crooner Bruno Wolfe – contributing, and on the eight tracks featuring the Jug Band, they all get to take center mic at least once. Two songs on the set are from the man's solo albums, though to be honest, I wish compilation producer Vince Hans had put in two more Jug Band cuts instead. Solo Kweskin was for the die-hards and the New England folk crowd; the juggers provided syncopated folkiness at its most universally irrepressible.

As folkies, the Jug Band took its musical inspiration from a plethora of sources: early blues groups from the twenties and thirties like the Memphis Jug Band, Tin Pan Alley, and big band hits from the thirties and forties, even then-more-current songs like Peggy Lee's "I'm A Woman" or Chuck Berry's "Memphis." The ten-track intro favors older material (e.g. Walter Donaldson's 1928 "Borneo;" Memphis Jug Band's statement of purpose, "Jug Band Music;" "Somebody Stole My Gal"), though "My Gal" is credited to a host of then-current juggers like Kweskin, John Sebastian, and Zal Yanovsky. As a musical unit, the Jug Band was tighter than many of its contemporaries, with washboard bass and jug impresario Fritz Richmond (who later played jug on Warren Zevon's "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead") and banjo picker Bill Keith shining, in particular. Unlike a lotta sixties folk music, which was first aimed at an audience quietly sipping espressos in coffee houses, jug band music was designed to prod you out of yer chair and stomp yer feet. Kweskin and his crew were masters at this.

Prior to the "Visionaries" release, the only Kweskin Vanguard sets available on compact were two best-of collections, the second of which duplicates nearly every track on the first. This new 'un contains one band cut not featured on either set, Bruno Wolfe's "Newport News," which does not showcase the singer at his best (I'd've picked "Ukelele Lady"). The more familiar jug band material is overpicked for a reason: it's all irresistible. Whether it's Kweskin jauntily bemoaning his lot in "Somebody Stole My Gal" or "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" or Geoff & Maria comically billing & cooing in "Never Swat A Fly," this is good time music which doesn't betray that much abused phrase.

It couldn't last, of course. Perhaps one of the secrets behind the band's dynamism was its combustibility. After their stint on Vanguard, Kweskin and his group would produce one more album, adding fiddler Richard Greene to the mix, before the singer would bust up the band to be part of a religious cult centered on the teaching of jug band harmonica player Mel Lyman. (Honest!) Kweskin & Lyman would go on to produce one of the most soporific records (Jim Kweskin's America) in the history of folk music, though, thankfully, it's beyond this set's purview.

Vanguard Visionaries provides a good quick taste of Kweskin and the jugheads, though for just a few dollars more you can still buy a copy of the twenty-four track Greatest Hits! Wish that Welk Music'd see fit to reissue full versions of the group's three Vanguard releases; there are great tracks that've undeservedly been allowed to molder in the vaults for far too long (Kweskin's "Coney Island Washboard," Geoff's "Don't You Leave Me Here," "Fishing Blues"). But, for now, this short set'll have to suffice. Don't really see the current generation of politically-minded collegians spinning it in the background of their late-nite bull sessions, though …

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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