October 2021 - The Birthplace of Country Music
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Instrument Interview: The Jug

“Instrument Interview” posts are a chance to sit down with the instruments of traditional, country, bluegrass, and roots music – from different types of instruments to specific ones related to artists, luthiers, and songwriters – and learn more about them. Ten questions are posed, and the instruments answer! Today we caught up with the jug, a very interesting instrument who had a lot to say about what it’s like to be in a jug band.

1.  Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

I’m a jug that is used as an instrument. I play in a type of band that is called a jug band, but there are lots of other interesting instruments in these types of bands other than me. I’m a household object that was converted into a musical instrument.

2.  Jugs are made to be containers, so how did you become an instrument? 

I come from a long line of innovators. These are the type of creative people that make things from what they’ve got in their surroundings. Many early jug bands were made up of African American musicians from the world of vaudeville, musicians who performed in traveling medicine shows, and sometimes just people at home creating their own instruments. And jugs like me first started being recorded in jug bands in places like Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1920s and 1930s.

For some jug band musicians, perhaps they didn’t have the money for or access to instruments, and so they decided to pick up and modify things like jugs, washboards, spoons, and other things to make music to entertain themselves and their community. People have been making music out of everyday items and things they find just lying around for centuries.

Three Black musicians pose with their instruments. They all wear suits, the men to the left and right with bow ties and the middle man with either a normal tie or just his collar buttoned up. The man to the left wears a fedora-style hat, holds a banjo, and has a jug held towards his face by a "rack" around his neck. The middle man is seated and wears a fedora-style hat; he holds a guitar. The man to the right wears a flat cap and holds a harmonica.
Cannon’s Jug Stompers, a band formed by Gus Cannon with Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson in the late 1920s. Supposedly Cannon first learned to play the banjo on an instrument he made from a frying pan and a racoon skin when he was a child. Image from Wikimedia Commons

3.  Can any old jug be an instrument? 

Sure! You can make music with any old milk jug or even something like a Snapple bottle, and I definitely encourage you to make music with anything you can find. Next time you find yourself with an empty bottle or jug, see how many ways you can make music with it. I promise it will brighten your day, and you won’t regret having a little fun making music. However, a jug is not much without the other instruments in the jug band.

4.  How are you played?

There are multiple ways to play a jug. Since it wasn’t originally intended to be an instrument, there are far fewer rules on how to do it right so feel free to improvise! Lots of people think that to play a jug, you blow across the top of the opening like you’d play a flute, but there’s actually a lot more spit involved than that. You could do it that way, but normally in a jug band, players will buzz into a jug with their lips like you’d do to play the trumpet.

5.  What do you sound like? And what about the band as a whole?

I make a sound that is kind of like a trombone-like tone, and it is often low on the musical scale. And the sound I make is also influenced by the material I am made of and my size. As a whole, a jug band typically plays music that sounds like a blend of blues, jazz, rag-time, and rock-and-roll. This is because jug bands were a precursor to all of these genres of music. Jug band music is a community and joy-based type of music, and since the instruments are so versatile and unique, it’s a great medium for innovation and creating new sound. This is how jug bands influenced the music from a variety of genres.

Three instruments hang on the back of a museum display case. The backing is blue. The top instrument is a small guitar made from a cigar box with a wooden neck. The middle instrument is a guitar made out of a circular ice bucket with a wooden neck. The bottom instrument is a large jug with a brown neck and shoulders and a cream body.
Various handmade and every day object instruments on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. These include two guitars, one made from a cigar box and the other from an ice bucket, along with a jug used to make music. Photograph by Frank Kovalchek via Wikimedia Commons

6.  What are the roles of the different instruments in a jug band?

The washboard, the bones, and the spoons provide percussion and rhythm for a jug band. The washtub base, the jaw harp, comb and tissue paper, some other modified stringed instruments, as well as the jug take the other places in a jug band. Some bands have just a few of these instruments, but others have many more depending on the sound that the band is trying to achieve. And often more “typical” instruments like the guitar or banjo are also included in the band. It’s a bit of a mix-and-match situation.

7.  Why did people start making music with jugs? 

People started to make music with jugs for the same reason everybody starts to make music – because they love it and wanted to come up with a way to entertain themselves and the people around them. This motivation based on love comes into the origin stories of just about all instruments. Even the simple ones like me. Throughout history, it has taken innovation and the creative use of ordinary objects and different materials to make music.

8.  When instruments are more accessible today, why do people still play the jug? Why are you and other homemade instruments still relevant? 

One reason that jug bands are still relevant is that the history of music is something that should be remembered and celebrated, and playing the music is one of the best ways to learn about it. Another way jug bands stay relevant is through modern music. Folk musicians and other musicians take inspiration from the unique sound of a jug band and adapt it to contemporary music. This brings a historical element to their music as well as a new and interesting sound. The main reason overall that a jug band and its instruments are still relevant is that the instruments are fun to play and listen to, and just about anyone can learn to play because a lot of the instruments are ones that you can find easily or make.

This photograph shows a band on a dark stage. The group is made up of six white musicians, including a woman with curly hair on guitar, a man with longish dark hair and a plaid shirt on harmonica, a man with a black shirt on washtub bass, a man in a tank top on drums, a man in a black shirt with the spoons, and a man wearing a hat and a plaid shirt on the washboard.
The Happy Fun Thyme Trouble Jug Band performing in 2019. At the far back left, you can see a washtub bass being played, while the two other musicians in the back of the group play the spoons and washboard. Image from Wikimedia Commons

9.  How do homemade instruments like you fit into an Appalachian/Southern identity?

Both of these identities consist very much of holding things like community as a high priority. There’s not much people like to do more than get together and listen to music. Also, very important to a Southern and Appalachian identity is resilience in the face of adversity. In an area that struggles with poverty, the people are known for finding creative and innovative ways to do things like make music – and to produce wonderful instruments to help them do so!

10.  Is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself? 

Before I leave, I’d like to emphasize the importance of making music with whatever you find in your environment and doing it for fun. If it wasn’t for people looking around for ways to have a good time making music with things like jugs and seemingly silly household objects, we wouldn’t have the blues and rock music that we love today. So next time you feel like being silly and making music with a strange object, do it. You might just invent a new genre of music!

Gracie Osborne was an intern at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum this past summer, helping with curatorial work and visitor experience. She is an anthropology student at Radford University.

Radio Bristol Book Club: The Moon-Eyed People – Folk Tales from Welsh America

Welcome to Radio Bristol Book Club where readers from BCM and the Bristol Public Library come together each month to celebrate and explore books inspired by our region’s rich Appalachian cultural and musical heritage! We invite you to read along and then listen to Radio Bristol on the fourth Thursday of each month at 12:00 noon when we dig deep into the themes and questions raised by the books, learn more about the authors, and celebrate the joys of being a bookworm!

Cover of The Moon-Eyed People: Folk Tales from Welsh America by Peter Stevenson.

According to Cherokee legend, the “moon-eyed people” are a race of small men who once lived in the Southern Appalachians. These folk, considered significantly different from the Cherokee in physical appearance, were bearded and had ashen skin. They were called moon-eyed because “they were small and pale, lived underground, and could see in the dark.” 

The Moon-eyed People: Folk Tales from Welsh America is a collection of stories by Peter Stevenson that includes true stories, tall tales, and folk tales, all mixed together into a literary delight. They tell about the lives of migrants who, upon leaving Wales, settled in America. These “moon-eyed people” were a diverse group of soldiers, hobos, witches, miners, explorers, sailors, and wayfaring strangers, to name just a few. In this collection of tales, you will find stories about “a mining settlement in Appalachia described as being unfit for pigs to live in, Welsh weavers making cloth for enslaved people, a monster being defeated by a medicine-girl, a criminal marrying an ‘Indian Princess,’ and mountain women practicing Appalachian hoodoo, native healing, and Welsh witchcraft.” There is sure to be a tale for everyone’s taste.

Peter Stevenson with a “krankie,” a device that allows the storyteller to roll out the story in illustrative form while they tell their tale. Credit: Felix Cannadam Photography

Author Peter Stevenson was born in Lancashire, England, but lived in Wales for most of his life.  He studied illustration at Manchester Art College, and he researched folk drama and folk tales as a postgraduate in the Institute for Dialect and Folklife Studies at Leeds University. Stevenson has written, illustrated, and compiled children’s books and fairy tales for various publishers. He has also shared his tales as a storyteller in a variety of places, such as church crypts, village halls, grand theaters, cafes, and art galleries. In addition, he tours storytelling shows while working with talented musicians. Stevenson has lived in Aberystwyth for the last 30 years and is the recipient of the Children’s Book of the month award in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Please make plans to join us on Thursday, October 28 at 12:00pm for the discussion of The Moon-Eyed People: Folk Tales from Welsh America, followed by a conversation with author Peter Stevenson. You can find us on the dial at 100.1 FM, streaming live on Radio Bristol, or via the Radio Bristol app. The book is available at the Bristol Public Library so be sure to pick up a copy and read it ahead of time. The librarians will be happy to help you find the book. We look forward to sharing our thoughts on this wonderful children’s book, and if you have thoughts or questions about the story that you would like to share with our readers, you can email info@birthplaceofcountrymusic.org (Subject line: Radio Bristol Book Club) – your book insights might appear on air with us!

Looking ahead: Our book pick for November is Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg; we’ll be discussing it on Thursday, November 18 (a week early due to Thanksgiving). Check out our full list of 2021 Radio Bristol Book Club picks here, where you can also listen to archived shows, and keep an eye out – we’ll be releasing our 2022 reading list soon!

Guest blogger Tonia Kestner is the Executive Director at the Bristol Public Library.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Do you remember coming back to school and being asked to write an essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”? Well, sometimes as adults, we get asked to do this too!

I spent part of my summer vacation – a much-needed respite from my 7:00am to whenever job as a North Carolina educator – learning about museum education at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. For three intense weeks, I completed an internship for my educational leadership doctoral program at Appalachian State University, working with the curatorial staff to design and implement a two-day in-service training for area teachers about the museum’s educational resources and helping to develop museum content lesson plans. Having worked in K-12 and community college education, I was not new to teaching; however, museum education is uniquely different, and this opportunity taught me an expansive amount. Most importantly I learned how museums are a vital non-traditional educational method, and this experience provided me with a fuller appreciation of their importance and impact on our communities and our history.

Introducting elementary school teachers to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum’s lesson plans. © Birthplace of Country Music

When most people think of school and learning, they think of sitting in desks in a classroom. Field trips to museums were treats awarded to the class and provided a break from the mundane everyday classroom monotony. This assessment isn’t wrong, but this internship taught me that there is much more to museums than what we experience in mere field trips. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a fun place to visit, filled with music and several interactive technologies for visitors to engage with the music. However, it is also a living educational gem, where the special exhibit is always changing and the curatorial staff is constantly seeking ways to improve the content and to provide visitors with memorable information.

Teaching is ongoing at the museum. When school groups visit, students get an introduction to the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and view a film about its history and impact before embarking on a scavenger hunt to learn more. They can also enjoy a game of Banjo Bingo, a fun, interactive way for them to learn about the instruments used in these important recording sessions. The museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery also offers a space for learning focused on different topics throughout the year – from music, Appalachian culture, explorations of art and portraiture, or even wider histories like Civil Rights or the history of work in America. These lessons are often wrapped in an interactive discussion about the artifacts and images on view. Even though students may not even realize it, they are learning valuable information despite not being in a traditional educational venue. The museum is teaching and providing a valuable avenue to provide education in a non-traditional way.

Three images:
Left-hand image: Four sets of lesson plans, two of which have blue and teal covers with their titles "The 1927 Bristol Sessions Story" and "The Instruments of the 1927 Bristol Sessions," and two of which are draft texts for lesson plans on technology and the science of sound and artists/personalities from the 1927 Bristol Sessions.
Top right: The author Amy Myers stands in front of several teachers seated at round tables in a large room. Amy is a white woman with blonde hair; she is wearing a black and white dress and is holding one of the lesson plans up next to a PowerPoint slide presentation.
Bottom right: A group of teachers sit at round tables in a large room. Near the brick wall at the back two teachers (one white man with a white shirt, one white woman with brown hair and a blue top) stand up -- one holds a poster they have created as a group for one of the learning activities.
Working with the curatorial team on the museum’s K-12 lesson plans project and sharing museum educational resources at the July teacher in-service gave me a unique insight into the enormous potential of museum education – and how fun it can be! © Birthplace of Country Music

Further, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is an important asset to the Bristol community and as a vehicle to explore the history of the region. The premise of the museum focuses on how country music grew out of the 1927 Bristol Sessions, but the museum’s content delves deeply into the rich culture of the Appalachians, a culture that has made Bristol the place it is today. Further, the expansive musical heritage of Bristol is alive and well at this museum, preserving vital information for the community and enabling generations to learn about and to understand their past. The importance of the museum’s role in preserving the area’s history cannot be understated. It is an integral part in preserving the community’s rich heritage.

The list of everything I learned while working at the museum could go on and on, but honestly these facets impacted me the most. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a beautiful venue that is dedicated to educating visitors about its history grounded in the region’s music. The staff are amazing, tireless professionals, dedicated to the museum’s mission. I am very thankful for this opportunity afforded me to work alongside these folks and to learn primarily from the curatorial staff. It has changed my outlook on non-traditional education, and I now carry the positive impact of the museum and the Bristol region with me wherever I go. Not only did this experience change how I view museums in general, but it made me further appreciate the role they fulfill in the educational realm. 

Check out the museum’s Education page to learn more about their offerings to the local community and K-12 educators. The museum’s suite of K-12 lesson plans will be uploaded to the website soon.

Amy Myers interned at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in 2021, helping curatorial staff to plan and produce museum lesson plans and deliver a two-day teacher in-service program. She is working on her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at Appalachian State University, while also working as a teacher in the North Carolina school system.