Bill Boslaugh, an idealistic young political science student, had returned to Portland in the summer of 1966 after working in the ‘War On Poverty” in New York City as a federal VISTA volunteer. While in New York, he got hooked on jug band music, an old-time street-corner style that had its roots in the African American blues, ragtime and jazz traditions of the early 1900s.
At his summer work-study job at the Oregon Historical Society, Boslaugh introduced the music to a couple of student co-workers. Before long, the classmates had thrown together a group on a front porch in Portland’s Goose Hollow neighborhood to play their first notes as the Federal Cigar Jug Band. “We had to scrounge up some people who actually knew how to play music,” said Ray Horton of Portland, one of the original members.
More than four decades later, the old college friends still get together at least monthly to sing, play assorted string instruments plus washboard, kazoo, washtub bass and, of course, jug. The group has always been a stable five members until a sixth, Susan Saling, joined about six years ago.
“In fact, we’re very hesitant to play in any sort of a situation where we get paid for it or where there are expectations on what we play,” said Boslaugh, who now lives in Eugene.
Members of the band said that in the context of the complicated 1960s, they were drawn to the texture and substance of the old-style music. “Outside of music, you have to remember in the mid-’60s, the country was in the middle of an incredibly divisive war,” Boslaugh said. ‘We were just trying to cope with the political and social scene in America.”
Their interest in returning to American musical and cultural roots led a few of the band members to buy some land in the Coast Range and try their hands at growing their own food. “That didn’t last terribly long,” Boslaugh said. ‘We were soon back going to college or working jobs.” As the band members left college, they scattered to places such as Hillsboro, Oregon City and Eugene. They saw one another off and on through the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1992, the band came together again and has played regularly ever since.
The band now performs well over 100 songs, and over the years members have learned to play guitar, fiddle, banjo and assorted string band instruments. They’ve always learned by listening to old recordings, most made in the 1920s and early 1930s, then playing the songs by ear.
The music is much easier to learn than the lyrics, Horton said. “There were different dialects, and there was certainly a different vocabulary .” Though the band members can usually make out most of the words on a recording, they sometimes don’t understand the meaning, he said. For instance, there’s a lyric saying that the “jug band will put your water on. Until recently we didn’t know what that reference meant,” Horton said. Or the line: “Had a forty-dollar razor tryin’ to shave that knot.” It’s some kind of allusion, or -- we don’t know what.”
Band members said they have stuck with the music for more than 40 years because they love the simple, home-grown instruments, the lyrics, melodies and the infectious rhythms, heavily grounded in West African musical traditions. In addition the more “primitive” instruments the band also includes guitars, banjo, banjo/mandolin, acoustic bass, dobro, mandolin a fiddle and four vocalists, but the backbone of the style is improvised instruments.
Washboard players usually wear thimbles on their fingers to drag across the ridges. The washtub bass is made of an upside-down metal washtub, clothesline or wire, and a broom handle. One end of the string is attached to the bottom of the tub, and the other end is attached to the tip of the broom handle. The player adjusts the tension with the broom handle to make different bass pitches.
Bob Bailey, who joined the band in 1967, sometimes plays jug, as well as banjo or guitar. He favors an old crockery jug he found lying beneath the edge of a friend’s barn. Unlike blowing air over a pop bottle flute-style, he said, you play the jug buzzing your lips over the mouth of it, much like playing a trumpet or tuba.
Now in their late-50s and early 60s, ...most hardly resemble their 1960s selves. But when they get together with their washboards and jugs, their college days aren’t far away. “In the ‘60s, music was just kind of pop rock ‘n’ roll, and it didn’t really have much substance to it,” Boslaugh said. “Whereas this music. . . was music that said something about life and death and relationships.”
Jug Band Music
Up The Country Blues
Pencil Don't Write
James Alley Blues
You May Leave
I'm A Woman
Might As Well Let'r Go
Pistol Packin' Mama
Wild About My Lovin'
On The Road Again
Viola Lee Blues
Meet Me In The Bottom
Aunt Caroline Dye
Viola Lee Blues
Goodbye Miss Liza
If I Lose
In The Jailhouse Now
Duncan & Brady
Move That Thing
Duncan and Brady
Baby's Got The Rickets
Out w/The Wrong Woman
THE FEDERAL CIGAR JUG BAND
Site last updated 6/15/12
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