By Eddie Huffman Special Correspondent
Winston-Salem Journal – Relish Now
Jim Kweskin grew up in Connecticut, began his music career in Boston and now lives in California, but he knows this region’s historic Piedmont blues artists better than most natives. He was inspired by Elizabeth Cotten, the Rev. Gary Davis, Etta Baker, and Sonny Terry And Brownie McGhee.
“Rev. Gary Davis was one of the all-time great guitar pickers,” Kweskin said from his home in Los Angeles.
The Fiddle and Bow Society is bringing Kweskin to Winston-Salem on Friday for his first performance at Muddy Creek Music Hall.
He rose to prominence as leader of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band from 1963 to 1968. He has performed as a solo artist in the half century since, and did a couple of reunion tours with the Jug Band earlier this decade.
“It was great,” Kweskin said. “Unfortunately we lost our banjo player, Bill Keith, right after that, so it was an opportunity to play music with him one last time.”
The Jug Band included several performers who found acclaim after its breakup.
“The Kweskin Jug Band was a major act of the ’60s folk revival, and several members of the band went on to make names for themselves in other music, like Maria Muldaur, Bill Keith in bluegrass, and Richard Greene in jazz and other genres,” said Sonny Thomas, Fiddle and Bow’s co-founder. “Jim is continuing to champion that type of American music with some fine fingerpicking and vocal work.”
Jug band music originated more than a century ago, with groups such as Whistler and His Jug Band in Louisville and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers in Memphis among the first to make records.
The loose-limbed, high-spirited genre was revived in the 1950s and ’60s by Kweskin and others, including John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Kweskin grew up in Stamford, Conn., and headed north in 1958 to attend college at Boston University. He became a key figure in the music scene around Boston and Cambridge, one of the most important centers for folk music in that era. Other artists who emerged from the scene include Joan Baez, Taj Mahal and Buffy Ste. Marie.
Jug band music offered Kweskin an ideal convergence.
“My two favorite types of music at that time were folk music and early jazz, jazz from the ’20s,” he said. “People like Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, early Louis Armstong and Sidney Bechet. My other favorite music was folk music: the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives and all that. What jug band music really is, if you boil it down, is old-time jazz played on folk music instruments.”
Kweskin got to see Seeger perform up close and personal at a summer camp he attended when he was 13.
“At the time he was blacklisted from playing in clubs and on television because of his unwillingness to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, so the only jobs he could get were kids’ summer camps and things like that,” Kweskin said.
The Jug Band also included Geoff Muldaur, a singer Richard Thompson once praised by saying, “There are only three white blues singers, and Geoff Muldaur is at least two of them.” Muldaur and Kweskin released a duo album in 2016 called “Penny’s Farm.”
“Our great washtub and jug player, Fritz Richmond, died in ’05, and there were a bunch of events celebrating his life,” Kweskin said. “So all of a sudden Geoff and I were back together, and we decided to work up a couple of songs. It just clicked, like the 45 years had not gone by.”
Kweskin’s latest album, “Unjugged,” came out last fall on Hornbeam Recordings, a label based in England.
“It was mostly songs that I’ve been wanting to record for a long time, but never got around to it,” he said. “The company wanted me to do an album that was more folkie and less jug band, and that’s why it’s called ‘Unjugged.’”
One of the songs on the album is a version of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” a classic ballad about a 1903 accident in Danville, Va., when a train bound for Spencer derailed, killing 11 people.
Kweskin learned this version of the song from a record by another Carolina performer, Pink Anderson of South Carolina.
“The reason I like that version is because it tells so much more of the story than most versions you hear,” he said.