Jim Kweskin is an unassuming folk legend.
For a guy steeped in American Folk history, he’s humble about the impact he’s had.
The Jim Kweskin Jug Band is said to have influenced Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, which became the Grateful Dead.
When I asked Kweskin about it, he said simply: “So I’ve been told.”
When I told him it was awesome that he played in a string trio that included a young Bob Dylan in the heyday of the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, he shrugged it off: “It really isn’t that awesome… The only reason it’s memorable is because it’s Bob Dylan.”
He’s not the type to roll out the red carpet for himself, but he’s Americana Royalty. So I want to say: Make sure you see Kweskin at the New Bedford Folk Festival this weekend.
The fact that Kweskin is at this fest is a Very Big Deal.
This is a guy who played Newport Folk Fest in 1965, the year Dylan went electric.
With his signature mustache and newsboy cap, Kweskin brought ragtime fingerpicking into the folk/blues mix, leaning on the influences of old bluesmen like Blind Boy Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt.
In 1963, he founded The Jim Kweskin Jug Band in Cambridge. They were gypsy hipsters, recreating the sounds of pre-World War II rural Americana — reviving that ol’ mountain music and back porch jam with a kazoo, jug, fiddle, banjo, a mix of ragtime, swampy blues and good-time jazz, and a freewheelin’ come-and-join-us style.
The band’s lineup changed often, but its foundation included Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur and his wife Maria Muldaur. The Muldaurs, of course, went on to folk fame, both solo and as a duet.
At the New Bedford Folk Fest, he’ll “play a mixture of all kinds of jug band ragtime songs without a jug band.”
Sounds good to me.
I caught up with Kweskin, who turns 77 this month, to talk all things Folk.
Daley: So how did The Jim Kweskin Jug Band start out?
Kweskin: I was in Boston in the early ‘60s and a guy from Vanguard Records saw me perform on stage during a jam session at Club 47 [now Club Passim.] It was just a bunch of friends jamming up on stage, we hadn’t even rehearsed. But he said, “Do you want make record?” So we put the Jug Band together in ’63.
Daley: Wow. So how did you go about putting a jug band together?
Kweskin: I’m not a blues singer; Geoff Mulduar is a great blues singer; he was one of my first choices. I needed banjo player and got Bob Siggins. Fritz Richmond, I said, “Hey we’re forming a jug band; you gotta learn how to play the jug.”
Daley: [laughs] And the lineup changed a number of times.
Kweskin: Yes, Maria [Muldaur] came in a year later. We were doing a show in New York City and she fell in love with Geoff after hearing him sing the blues. So she moved to Cambridge and joined the band… We did very well; we got quite popular. We did large college concerts. We did Newport Folk Fest five years in a row…
Daley: What are a few favorite moments, looking back?
Kweskin: The Newport Folk Fest because not only we were in front large audiences, 20,000 people, but also because we met some the great early traditional musicians who we had grown up listening to — Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis, the Carter Family.
Daley: You were at the ’65 Newport Folk Fest when Dylan went electric. What was that like?
Kweskin: Too loud. I think people make a big deal of it, but it was no surprise. “Like a Rolling Stone” had already come out. It’s not like anybody didn’t know he went electric. But when you’re in the audience, listening to one acoustic set after another, then one comes on that’s so earsplitting loud — people were shocked more by the volume than anything else. That Dylan went electric was no big deal to me, but it was like going to see a symphony orchestra and instead hearing a hard rock band.
Daley: What was the reaction of the others artists that day?
Kweskin: Mixed. Mainly it was just too loud… If they had turned the volume down, it never would’ve been such a big deal. People make a big deal out of it, but it was just Dylan being Dylan. What did anyone expect? That’s who he is.
Daley: [laughs] I guess that’s true. So did you always want to be a musician?
Kweskin: I went to Boston University to study business, but didn’t spend much time there because I got wrapped up in the folk scene. I quit, and traveled around the country. I went everywhere — St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, LA, Denver — meeting all different musicians. I went to Minneapolis and hung out with Spider John Koerner. In Chicago, I met Paul Butterfield. All of us were young and getting started.
Daley: So you picked up old folk tunes in bits and pieces.
Kweskin: Exactly. I also met people with old records, just looking for songs.
Daley: When did you want to play guitar?
Kweskin: At summer camp at 13. Some counselor played, and I said, “Wow that’s cool.” I came home and took guitar lessons, but it didn’t last long because the teacher wanted to teach jazz chords. I was into folk.
Daley: What was it about that jug band sound that you loved?
Kweskin: Good question. I don’t know how to answer that. I just did.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Kweskin plays various sets July 8 and 9. Check online for more information. http://www.newbedfordfolkfestival.com
Lauren Daley is a freelance writer and Spotlight music columnist. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/daley.writer She tweets @laurendaley1.