People make a lot of jokes about the weird things Minnesotans do to survive the long, cold winters, although we’re so used to weird around your friendly neighborhood record shop that there’s not a lot left to surprise us. One tradition which has over more than three decades become a local institution is the Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands.
The rules are fairly simple: Your band gets 20 minutes. Your band has to include at least three traditional jug band instruments instruments — examples include jugs (duh), comb & tissue (ie, kazoo), washboard, washtub bass, spoons, etc. No electrified instruments. The competition for the coveted Holliwood Waffle Iron provides for a weekend of rowdy fun split over a couple West Bank bars.
Each year’s bill reads like a “funny band name” list — last year’s included The She Goats, The Hump Night Thumpers, The West Bank Temperance League and Show Me Your Jugs, for instance. Few of these pickup groups play regular gigs — although a striking exception is two-time winners of the Waffle, The Roe Family Singers, who have been playing every Monday night at the 331 Club for nearly a decade. The Minneapolis Battle of the Jug Bands has grown in recent years, in terms of the crowd and the number of contestants. It’s even the subject of an upcoming documentary (though we can’t say the trailer has us enticed to make it our once-a-year trip to the movies).
“She Broke my Heart in 3 Places”
One veteran of the annual event is the Dumpy Jug Bumpers, who have been playing a lot of show — just last month they had two residencies, one at Fulton Brewery’s Tap Room and one at the 331 Club. Their debut disc, Dumpin’ at the Savoy, will celebrate its release this weekend at our fifth annual Record Store Day Block Party, where the Bumpers will be joined by fourteen other awesome acts in a fun-filled full day of live music on two stages.
Dumpin’ at the Savoy is a lively tour of string and jug band esoterica. Nearly everything on the album comes from the twenties and thirties. The songs come from folks like the Mississippi Sheiks and the Hoosier Hot Shots, a big little jug band which enjoyed an extraordinary half-century run on records and in film and influenced none other than the man who murdered music himself, Spike Jones. Others are from lesser-known sources, like “Take A Look at that Baby,” a kazoo-y tune first recorded by the Two Poor Boys in the late 20s.
Some of the songs had a short hippy revival, like Gus Cannon’s “Viola Lee Blues,” written by his harmonica player Noah Lewis in 1928 and recorded by the Grateful Dead as an extended jam on their first LP. Still don’t confuse their “Take a Look at that Baby” with John Fahey’s song (he just used the title) or their “If You Don’t Want me Don’t Dog Me ‘Round” (originally the “Alabama Blues”) with J.B. Lenoir’s alarmingly contemporary 1965 song, “Alabama Blues.” The thing about traditional music is it’s not as static as the sticks in the mud would like. Titles come and go, and jug band music is a magically informal format.
Even their name is flexible: You can rearrange the letters and always come up with something fun. The Dumpy Jug Bumpers, The Juggy Dump Buggers, The Buggy Jump Duggers. Drew Temperante tells us the band evolved out of Alas, Alas, a great band which rarely plays because its members are scattered around the country. Hymie’s first heard Alas, Alas through our friends in El Le Faunt and his Travelling Circus, and we were lucky enough to once host a memorable Alas, Alas show around the holidays.
Teperante goes on to explain how the band went through nearly a dozen players before settling on its current line-up last fall, in which he’s joined by Tom Phelan on the harmonicas, Aaron ‘Muskrat’ Barck on the parlor guitar, kazoo and all-essential jug, and bassist Liz Draper. Rather than a jug band, the Dumpers consider themselves “a string band on the more blue, jazz and ragtime end of the spectrum,” he explains. “We pay close attention to detail in trying to emulate the feel in all these styles, including the classic jug band sounds, and tha’ts something we strive for as a band, whichever style song we’re playing.”
There’s an awesome revival of what we called “the good stuff” (in our post about Patty & the Buttons’ XXX hokum album) — folks are discovering songs nearing their centennial and giving them a new spin. The Twin Cities is full of bands playing traditional folk and blues, but enthusiasm for tunes from this era has been a growing nationally for years. The commercially-acclaimed Carolina Chocolate Drops have featured Charlie Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues” and our favorite Gillian Welch song (“Wayside/Back in Time” from Soul Journey) borrows lines from “Peaches in the Springtime” — They might not seem like it at first, but the Jumpy Bug Dumpers aren’t so far behind the times.
Of course, one thing which makes Dumpin’ at the Savoy especially fun is the band’s single original, “I Got the Stuff.” Just like Patty and the Buttons and so many other local favorites of ours, the Dumpys fit a new tune into a set of old ones seamlessly. We were genuinely surprised it was a new song!
“I Got the Stuff”
When we asked if the band would bring in more new songs, Temperante said they’ve been writing new material since recording Dumpin’ at the Savoy, but they’ll continue to focus on the making the original numbers fit in with the old stuff. “Learning the old songs is just so fun for us. We love the music so much we want to learn it and play it and make it exist beyond just the old recordings. It feels different than covering a contemporary song. It doesn’t feel like covering a song at all actually. It feels like the old songs are something we all own now, as a part of American cultural heritage.”