Friday, July 4, 2014

Tragic Heroes of Jug Band Harmonica by Liam Ward

This is the first of a series of articles on harmonica playing I will be featuring on the blog. It was written and submitted by Liam Ward from

Jug band music uses a host of weird and wonderful instruments. Aside from the jug, there’s the washtub bass, spoon, kazoo and even the comb. In this context, the expressive and influential use of harmonica can often be overlooked.

As a jug band harmonica player, I decided to do some research. (Best check out the competition, even if they were recording almost a century ago!) What follows is a story of two virtuoso harmonica players and one great musical tradition.

Noah Lewis was born in 1890 (or was it 1895… nobody’s sure), and at a young age had already attracted attention for the volume and tone he could muster, abilities he developed playing in local string and marching bands. He was also renowned for his ability to play two harmonicas simultaneously using mouth and nose (it’s said that he passed this trick on to Walter Horton). In 1907 he ran into travelling musician Gus Cannon, and they formed the trio Cannon, Lewis and Thompson. The popularity of another harmonica player, however, was to change the direction of their trio - and jug band music - forever.

Cannon's Jug Stompers

In the late 1920s another harmonica player by the name of Will Shade was becoming popular with his band the Memphis Jug Band. Seeing this, Cannon added a ‘jug’ (actually a coal-oil can) to his trio and so was born Cannon’s Jug Stompers. During the band’s sessions, Lewis recorded four solo tracks plus four sides as the Noah Lewis Jug Band. Perhaps his most celebrated playing from this era is the haunting solo in ‘Viola Lee Blues’ from 1928.

Lewis experienced problems with cocaine, his abilities declined and he disappeared into obscurity for thirty years, as did Cannon. In the winter of 1961, the story goes that Lewis became lost out in the cold, with only threadbare clothes to protect him from the biting winter chill, and succumbed to frostbite. He died in poverty, and alone. Had he lived another year, he would have seen his old friend Cannon’s ‘Walk Right In’ take mainstream white culture by storm. As a result of the Rooftop Singers’ hit single version of that song, the then-79-year-old Gus Cannon was asked to record an album for Stax Records. The offer came just too late for Lewis. But who else played on that recording? Why, Will Shade, of course.

Will Shade was not only a harmonica player but a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and composer. He set up the Memphis Jug Band when he heard the first jug band recordings coming out of Louisville, Kentucky. Shade played guitar, the "bullfiddle" or washtub bass, and the harmonica, and sang too. His distinctive country blues harmonica influenced several big-name harmonica players of the next generation. Over forty years a large number of rotating musicians were backed up by the ubiquitous Shade on recordings billed as the Memphis Jug Band. A particular favourite of mine is Stealin’ Stealin’ in which Shade, as far as I can tell, flips between two harmonicas - one in first position and one in second – in order to get the high note for the chorus.

Shade was a conscientious businessman and through the band was able to buy a house plus a chunk of record company stock, but the Great Depression hit him hard. With the decline of the industry and the change of the public’s musical taste, the Memphis Jug Band grew quiet.

Thirty years later, blues revivalists found Shade and some of his old bandmates still playing together, along with old rival Gus Cannon. Shade, by now, was not a well man. Charlie Musselwhite says that around this time he would visit Shade and give money and alcohol if he could afford it. One time he found Shade’s arm burning from a nearby heater. He was so weak that he couldn’t move away from the heat. Musselwhite helped him to lie down and played some harmonica for him. “You been up in Chicago, boy!” said Shade, “You got that Chicago sound now. You go ahead on boy!” Musselwhite never saw him again. In a tale eerily similar to that of Lewis, Shade died of pneumonia, a poor man.

For many years his body lay in an unmarked grave. However, this story isn’t all doom and gloom. In 2008 a group of musicians held a fundraiser and purchased a headstone for Shade's grave, and also managed to sponsor a spot on the Beale Street walk of fame for the Memphis Jug Band.

The fact that there is still an interest in the music of these great musicians is thanks partly to awareness raised by passionate bands of the 1960s. In addition to the Rooftop Singers, we had the Grateful Dead recording Stealin’ as their first single, Jim Kweskin’s Boston-based jug band (with Mel Lyman on harmonica) and The Lovin’ Spoonful citing jug band music as their inspiration.

Fifty years on jug band harmonica is rarely heard, but let’s look on the bright side. It’s not a saturated market, so pick up your harmonica, grab a washboard and start a jug band today. Shade and Lewis are out there somewhere listening.

Liam Ward

Liam Ward is a UK-based harmonica player and teacher, and founder of He is a former National Harmonica League Player of the Year and a regular contributor to Harmonica World magazine and Blues in Britain. Liam currently plays with hokum blues outfit The Rumblestrutters as well as appearing as a guest with many other artists.

Thanks Liam for an excellent, well written and researched article....Marty

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