Jug Bands: The DIY Movement in Music

Kali Malinka

Musicians who wanted to “do-it themselves” with regards to their instrument-making gained immense popularity playing in “jug bands” in America in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It’s in the name: jug bands were musical groups that used instruments made from accessible household materials, such as jugs, washboards, spoons, washtubs, broomsticks and more.

While not often talked about, the genre was highly influential. In fact, some musicians continue to use this style of lowbrow instrument creation, sharing knowledge through the internet. The following paper hopes to bring to light how this “Do-It-Yourself” movement parallels the goals of the Arts and Crafts movement in the visual arts. Linked to the Arts and Crafts movement through interest in folklore, I will discuss why and how the counter-culture DIY movement in music has grown. Examined through the guise of material culture, I will also discuss the study of folklore and folk revival, as well as the independent representation of artists, and the changing contexts of “authenticity” through time. Regardless of decade or century, having pride in one’s own creation is the strongest thread that ties the craftspeople of the Arts and Crafts movement and the musicians who “Do-It-Themselves” together.

Jug bands as they are commonly known today are adaptations of African and African-American musical traditions. The tradition of using jugs or pots in music, in the form of “musical pots” and “pot-drums” can be traced back to Nigeria, where the “creation of music and pottery meet […] as perhaps nowhere else [in the world].”[1] Like American jugs, these Nigerian pots resemble those that are used in the kitchen: “The simplest form is the ordinary pitcher, perhaps equipped with a pot-ring at the base and a crude rope container, which is set on the ground and beaten over the mouth with some fibrous material such as the frayed inflorescence of the palm tree.”[2] It is interesting to note that while American jug bands are often overlooked as ingénues, writing on the Nigerian pot musicians draws attention to the talent it takes to play these instruments and how these skills vary regionally.[3]
One can become quite resourceful under economic constraints. In the “Western world”, jug bands had their origins in the 1890’s amongst African-Americas, known then as “spasm bands”. In Louisville, Kentucky in the 1900’s the term “jug band” came about, signifying a group that combined the musical styles of country, jazz and the blues. Jug bands reached their height in popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with big names like Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band, and Whistler’s Jug Band. These jug band musicians turned to their domestic spaces for inspiration and found potential in objects such as tea chests, brooms (for bass), a washboard and a thimble or spoons (for percussion), and, of course, jugs to create new instruments.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, as economic hardship began to dissolve, these musicians continued to make their instruments in “rent party bands,” celebrating the abundant available resources and their personal creativity. In Britain, beginning as early as the 1920’s, such bands were called “skiffle bands” whereby traditional instruments were replaced with homemade ones to create music inspired by the blues and jazz. Skiffle bands peaked in popularity in the 1950’s when British youth, who had become interested in America, fused folk, country, jazz, and the blues together, creating a precursor to rock and roll. The industrious and rebellious spirit of the post-war youth, who were shown on TV, paved the way for other young musicians who felt inspired to build their own instruments. Among them were famous musicians like John Lennon who led his skiffle band “The Quarry Men,” before The Beatles, and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. In the history of DIY music, jug bands and skiffle bands are important not only because of the high quality of the music made, but because of the ingenious spirit of the instrument creation.[4] These homemade instruments not only perpetuate the values of the Arts and Crafts movement, which placed great emphasis on the labour of their creation, but they also recall the spirit of an authentic rural lifestyle, a nostalgic theme frequently attached to the Arts and Crafts movement.[5]

Folklorists too share this interest in preserving the authenticity of various localities, aiming to research the old and document the present lore, or the sage knowledge, of the people. The Briton, William Thomas, coined the term “folklore” in 1846. He intended the word to define what he sought to recover. In his eyes “manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs” made up the romantic “Lore of the People”.[6] Folk music, while sometimes an umbrella term, “was represented in an ideological way as the music that characterizes the people, being out on the road, and the counter culture.”[7]

Jug band music was reinvigorated within the folk revival of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like fellow artisans and craftspeople in the Arts and Crafts movement, those who appreciated the folk revival did so because they were not satisfied with the flourishing rock and roll movement (although skiffle bands influenced early rock and roll). Like those participating in the visual Arts and Crafts movement, those interested in the folk revival felt that added technology, like the electric guitar, took away from the honesty of the work, much like the machine did for craftspeople. Folk artists like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan sang songs that referenced a simple and straightforward lifestyle that was ideally “primarily rural or isolated, and superorganic.”[8] Contemplating the “genuine” quality of the subject comes up again and again both in the discussion of the folklorists’ writing on the folk revival in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as in the Arts and Crafts movement. Folklorist Alan Lomax once said, “To be folk, you live folk.”[9] The ideology of creating and living out an alternative to the present reality with nostalgia for the past existed in both the folk revival and the Arts and Crafts movement. Arts and Crafts believed that one ought to commit entirely to the ideology of better design overall rather than simply owning one handmade object alongside many others that were machine made.

Like Arts and Crafts, jug bands often played a rebellious second fiddle to more “legitimate” forms of music. Jug bands are to jazz bands what Arts and Crafts are to Fine Art. The hierarchies intrinsic to each are curious to consider. Most often, the instruments made in online “how-to” instructional videos are compared to the “real” or “actual” instruments, creating a hierarchy of instrument-production. Similarly, on the scale of artistic production, Arts and Crafts sits lower than traditional Fine Art, despite its obvious tie to functionality. While a jug band may be considered a less “legitimate” form of music, existing at the bottom of America’s musical hierarchy because of its objective materiality, this perception may also have to do with racial inequality.

Economic struggles and social inequality came upon the participants of jug band music in the 1920’s and 1930’s. America privileged wealthy Caucasians, thus it is conceivable that jug band music was perceived as less legitimate when compared to other forms of music because of the race of its popular majority. Charlie and Joe McCoy were famous jug musicians, exemplifying the jazz and blues styles associated with “pre-war black music.”[10] Despite their immense influence, they remained in poverty -Charlie had to beg for money in order to bury his brother.

On the overlying theme of authenticity, I wish to consider a jug band instrument by means of analyzing a washboard using a material culture methodology. Objects can exist as metaphors and means to understanding the past, like an artifact.[11] To treat a washboard as an artifact and apply this notion of material culture to the jug band washboard, one can gather a number of readings. Firstly, the material itself is found in the home, and therefore is not an instrument by traditional music standards, requiring a special ingenuity to be used as such. Secondly, when one looks at a washboard used as a musical instrument in contemporary society, it carries with it the novelty of nostalgia, not only because of its popular use in the ‘20s and ‘30s but also because it acts as an object indexical of a time when many more activities, beyond washing clothes, were done by hand. Its manufacturing, however, was done industrially. Washing and drying machines have rendered washboards obsolete in contemporary society. Socially, the washboard indexes a time where an activity once considered in physical terms, now only exists as monetary. Washing and drying machines have rendered washboards obsolete in contemporary society. Economically, washboards were used because in music their accessibility, but today they are hard to come by and expensive, selling for anywhere between $40 to $124 on the handmade and vintage goods website, Etsy;[12] both the social and economic value of this object has transformed over the past century.

While folklore is the study of the traditions of local communities, it would be hard to pinpoint the lore of the people who can make their own instruments in contemporary times. This lore, or knowledge, is today disseminated through a new locality -the internet. Countless “how to make your own instrument” videos from across the world arrive at ones fingertips just seconds after a search on YouTube. Strangers are capable of verbally and visibly showing one another how to assemble a homemade instrument. In 1974, folklorist Bruce Nickerson asked, ““Is There a Folk in the Factory?” Yes, he answered: “based on techniques informally passed down to them, factory workers construct tools and animal figures from scrap materials.”[13] If factory skills can be considered lore in their own right, then one can look at the lore of those that engage in the discussion of creating instruments in forums over the internet as similar. Simon J. Bronner writes that, “Despite the commercialization and standardization of society, people still primarily rely on informal learning. People demand tradition. They still venerate the handmade, and they still depend on folklore for their sense of place, past and being.”[15] The internet is indeed an informal place of meeting and a new interface for one to share knowledge. Given the dependence of much of the world on the internet today, one may consider the online community a new locality, which merits its own lore.

While one can find beautiful homemade acoustic beat boxes on Etsy,[16] no other homemade, or non-professional instruments can be found there. Creators of DIY instruments do not seek commercial validation; they are concerned more with sharing their knowledge. On YouTube one can find individuals demonstrating how to make and play a tuna can guitar,[17] a coffee can guitar,[18] a homemade oboe with a straw,[19] an oatmeal-tub bass,[20] a washtub bass,[21] a copy of Jack White’s homemade electric guitar (as seen in the film It Might Get Loud),[22] and a carrot ocarina where a carrot is hollowed out and holes are added to provide air passages.[23] While the actual materials presented have little monetary or aesthetic value, the value they carry is in the resourcefulness of their creator and in the novelty of having made it one’s self. These homemade instruments were created to function, not just to decorate. This sentiment of creating a design which functions rather than being overtly frivolous is also important to the Arts and Crafts movement. They believed that applying extra, non-functional décor was ridiculous –rather, it is an object’s simplicity and function that should be merited.[24] The simplicity in finding a household object and a creative way to reuse it is also what DIY musicians merit.

Many of these homemade instruments are made from that which could be found in a recycling bin and a toolbox -most commonly seen are washtub basses, washboards, spoons, and jugs. In arguing for the design of a craft by a workman, David Pye writes that, “musical instruments ought to go on being made to traditional designs.”[25] With this in mind, it is comprehensible that jug bands that have used washtub basses, washboards with spoons, and jugs have not ‘evolved’ to use new household items as the century has gone on. Granted that everyday household items have not altered too much in the last century (with the exception of those powered by electricity), this explains the continued appearance of these same materials in jug bands today.

Some examples of contemporary bands using jug band instruments include B.C’s Blackberry Wood, New Orleans’ Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns, and Montreal’s Lake of Stew. The very essence of new jug bands lies in both the resourcefulness of the musicians who are creating their own instruments and the nostalgia for percussive and/or folk bands that flourished near the beginning of the twentieth century. This novelty and pride in creation allows the music of each band to identify with the goals of the Arts and Crafts movement in seeking a preferable alternative that they truly believe in. Looking at Montreal’s Lake of Stew beyond their music and the instruments employed, they are a DIY band because of how they represent themselves. Lake of Stew is signed to Montreal record label Dare To Care, which was created so that artists could be directly involved with the creative decision-making process. They claim “a strictly DIY work ethic”[26] and say that they “could choose to release certain albums with the goal of making a lot of money; however, we are not prepared to put out music that doesn’t reflect who we are. To us, the important thing is not to sell a lot of records, but to release truly authentic music.”[27] “Authentic” here is indexical of individuality and joy in labour, themes at the forefront of the Arts and Crafts movement. Lake of Stew’s album covers and concert posters are hand-drawn with images of their string instruments planted in the ground so as to situate themselves closely to their local environment. Lake of Stew is also promoted by a local booking and promotions company Indie Montreal, which was started by a 20-year-old university student who wished to be the one of a handful of promoters in Montreal willing to take smaller local and touring bands in for a show. Indie Montreal has allowed many bands to come to the city that might not have been able to otherwise. They are not about monetary gain. Rather, they are about forming bonds and relationships with musicians they believe in, and in turn supporting them.[28] Lake of Stew truly lives out ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. A proponent of the Arts and Crafts does not just have a handmade grandfather clock alongside machine-made objects;[29] they are committed to their ideology and their entire home reflects this “handmade” interest. Lake of Stew is certainly committed to creating and promoting their music with genuine heart and belief.

With a growing network of industrious musicians teaching one another how to make homemade instruments through the internet, and the persistent love and longing for a more authentic past indexed in music, we are sure to hear more music coming out of what we have stored in our kitchens. Creating a pleasing alternative to popular culture is a sentiment that runs deep in the DIY music of jug bands, reflected also in the Arts and Crafts movement. The fact that neither movement has been lucrative for its participants is a testament to the genuine heart of those who continue, without signs of stopping, to create, above all, what they love.

Bronner, Simon J. “Visible Truths: Material Culture Study in American Folkloristics.” In Material Culture: A Research Guide, 127-153. Topeka: University of Kansas, 1985.
Clark, Garth. “The Death of Crafts.” Crafts 216 (Jan/Feb 2009): 48-51.
Cox, Mabel. “The Arts and Crafts Exhibition.” Artist (October 1896): 9-40.
Dare To Care Records. “About.” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/en/faq/.
Denisoff, R. Serge and Jens Lund. ““The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contraditions.” The Journal of American Folklore 334 (1971): 394-405. http://0-www.jstor.org.mercury.concordia.ca/stable/539633.
Etsy. “Musical Wood Creations & Performance by AllNaturalAcoustics.” http://www.etsy.com/shop/AllNaturalAccoustics?page=2.
Etsy. “Washboard on Etsy – a global handmade marketplace”. http://www.etsy.com/search_results.php?search_query=washboard&search_type=handmade&shopname=KarenandRicksPlace.
Grassby, Richard. “Material Culture and Cultural History.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History. 35, no. 4 (2005): 591-603.
Nicklin, Keith. “Ibibio Musical Pot.” African Arts 7, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 50-92.
Pye, David. “The Nature of Art and Workmanship.” In The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson, 342-353. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010.
Spencer, Amy. “The Skiffle Legacy.” In DIY: The Rise of LO-FI Culture. London; New York: Marion Boyars 2005.
Whiteis, David. “The Real McCoys: A tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves.” Chicago Reader, September 30, 2010. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/joe-and-charlie-mccoy-southside-graves-chicago-blues/Content?oid=2492002.
Young, Natasha. “Indie Montreal meets Project Noise.” The Link, September 28, 2010.
YouTube. “Coffee Can Guitar.” Uploaded by jerving November 22, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sOCEdqkf3k.
YouTube. “How to Build a washtub bass pt. 1 – materials.” Uploaded by mrgreenjeans April 24, 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_OvpmV6I8.
YouTube. “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make a Bass Using Fishing Line.” Uploaded by expertvillage November 14, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNocydOEwjw.
YouTube. “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make Homemade Oboes with Straws.” Uploaded by expertvillage November 14, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V_hWBRZKuk.
YouTube. “I built a Jack White guitar in 10 minutes.” Uploaded by dave1234u June 24, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xNYyQQIGUQ.
YouTube. “Introduction of handmade vegetable musical instruments.” Uploaded by heita3 May 8, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5aUz9cDaCY.
YouTube. “Jack White makes a guitar (Scene from It Might Get Loud).” Uploaded by GorWo4ek December 14, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFXeChXfcI.
YouTube. “Tuna Can Guitar.” Uploaded by BillyDOOM23 August 26, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3dH_37XTUI.

1 Keith Nicklin, “Ibibio Musical Pot,” in African Arts 7, no.1 (Autumn 1973): 4.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., 6.
4 Amy Spencer, “The Skiffle Legacy,” in DIY: The Rise of LO-FI Culture (London; New York: Marion Boyars, 2005), 189.
5 Garth Clark, “The Death of Crafts,” Crafts 216 (Jan/Feb 2009): 48-51.
6 Simon J. Bronner, “Visible Truths: Material Culture Study in American Folkloristics,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide (Topeka: University of Kansas, 1985), 127.
7 R. Serge Denisoff and Jens Lund, “The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contraditions,” The Journal of American Folklore 334 (1971): 395.
8 Bronner, 133.
9 Denisoff and Lund, 396.
10 David Whiteis, “The Real McCoys: A Tribute to prewar bluesmen Joe and Charlie McCoy will help buy headstones for their unmarked south-side graves,” Chicago Reader, September 30, 2010, http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/joe-and-charlie-mccoy-southside-graves-chicago-blues/Content?oid=2492002.
11 Richard Grassby, “Material Culture and Cultural History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34, no. 4 (2005): 591.
12 “Washboard on Etsy – a global handmade marketplace,” Etsy, http://www.etsy.com/search_results.php?search_query=washboard&search_type=handmade&shopname=KarenandRicksPlace.
13 Bronner, 136.
14 Bronner, 145.
15 “Musical Wood Creations & Performance by AllNaturalAcoustics,” Etsy, http://www.etsy.com/shop/AllNaturalAccoustics?page=2.
15 “Tuna Can Guitar,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3dH_37XTUI.
16 “Coffee Can Guitar” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sOCEdqkf3k.
17 “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make Homemade Oboes with Straws,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V_hWBRZKuk.
18 “How to Make Musical Instruments for Kids: How to Make a Bass Using Fishing Line,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNocydOEwjw.
19 “How to Build a washtub bass pt. 1-materials,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bq_OvpmV6I8.
20 “I built a Jack White guitar in 10 minutes.” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xNYyQQIGUQ.
21“Jack White makes a guitar (Scene from It Might Get Loud),” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCFXeChXfcI.
22 “Introduction of handmade vegetable musical instruments,” YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5aUz9cDaCY.
23 Mabel Cox, “The Arts and Crafts Exhibition,” Artist (October 1896):16.
24 David Pye, “The Nature of Art and Workmanship,” in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson, 342-353. Berg Publishers: 2010, 352.
25 Dare To Care Records, “About.” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/daretocarerecords.php?section=faq&langue=en
26 Dare To Care Records, “About, ” http://www.daretocarerecords.com/en/faq/.
27 Natasha Young, “Indie Montreal meets Project Noise,” The Link, September 28, 2010.
28 Mabel Cox, 15.