San Francisco, California
7:00 and 9:00 pm, Friday, August 25, 2007
Close to the midpoint of this 2007 documentary film about a seminal African-American musical tradition, renowned musicologist Samuel Charters (The Country Blues, 1959) reminds us of the significance of what we are seeing when he quotes poet Charles Olson: "We must meet a creative act with a creative act. Filmmaker Todd Kwait's Chasin' Gus' Ghost documents the creative responses dedicated to recognizing, revitalizing and preserving jug band musican American roots expression frequently ignored, dismissed, or even reviled for its historical associations with minstrelsy. In the process, Kwait himself has created a film as entertaining as it is informative and provocative, crossing generations and genres with equal ease. Viewers between the ages of 14 and 104 (when Gus became a ghost) and with tastes ranging from bluegrass, folk and country to jazz, rock and latter-day mainstream pop are the audiences at whom this film is aimed. For the most part, it hits its mark.
The filmmaker casts himself as the narrator in search of the ghost of centenarian Gus Cannon who, though the mantle bearer of the jug band tradition and composer of timeless songs like "Walk Right In, died in poverty and neglect, a bitter old man. The quest yields the incarnation of a number of similar ghosts, including Cannon's musical associates Ashley Thompson and Noah Lewis, but Kwait's ingenious yet lucid and logical script assures that the viewer maintains constant touch points with familiar celebrated musicians of the present and recent past. The primary motivator for the filmmaker's historical quest is John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, whose hit songs, we soon learn, were often based on jug band riffs. Also prominently featured as a spokesperson for the tradition is Bob Weir, who recounts his meeting in 1964 with Jerry Garcia, which led to the formation of Mother McCree and the Uptown Jug Champions soon followed by the Grateful Dead.
Necessarily, this 95-plus-minute film devotes disproportionate time to jug band music and its makers post-1965. But through interviews with pioneering scholars, anecdotes by "locals from the Louisville and Memphis areas, and gripping but all-too-brief early film footage, we do begin to experience a genuine respect and close association with the music's original makers. A film clip of an aged Cannon performing with a voice that's closer to speech than melody acquires poignancy when we learn that one night after a gig the venerable bluesman had been mugged and choked by three thieves, leaving him with no singing voice. Noah Lewis, the legendary harmonica player in Cannon's jug band, becomes an equally palpable presence through the recollections of both the mayor of his hometown (Henning, Tennessee) and the two sons of Sleepy John Estes, guitarist on Lewis' "Minglewood Blues."
But it's Jim Kweskin's Jug Band that we come to know best and through whom we gain most of our knowledge and direct experiencing of jug band music. Besides Kweskin himself, there's Maria and Geoff Muldaur, who describes the "zeitgeist that produced the revival of interest in jug band music and praises the brilliance of a fellow band mate like Fritz Richmond, who could play "Mood Indigo on the wash tub bass and "break your heart with his jug playing alone. And from the soft-spoken, gentle-appearing Richmond we learn about the Dixieland Jug Band, which at one time included Louis Armstrong jazz great, clarinetist Johnny Dodds. And we also witness him delivering the first eulogy of his lifeat the newly discovered grave and recently completed headstone of Gus Cannon.
The film is a eulogy by as well as for Richmond. In the last clip we see of him, he chokes back tears as he expresses regret that jug band music doesn't command a larger audience and that he will no longer be around to address the problem. It's a heart-tugging moment, but the director uses it as an opportunity to document the popularity not merely of jug band music but of Richmond himself in Japan, where the Yokohama Jug Band Festival is dedicated to the memory of this late, beloved "juggler.
The film's ending draws upon Richmond's concern about the future of the music, ending on a note that's at once provocative and positive. Rhiannon Giddens of the Sankova Strings, the last person interviewed, makes explicit a disparity we've noticed between the original musicians and their descendants: the absence of African-Americans among the modern-day champions and performers of this music. Acknowledging that it's understandable blacks would have an aversion to a form of "minstrel music, she contends that minstrelsy is still with us. Jug band music will have no future as a vital musical expression until all races are willing to reclaim its meaningsexposing the wounds the better to heal them while extracting and retaining the all-too-fragile beauty. The concluding footage is of members of the band "teaching the music to a classroom of African-American school children.
Chasin' Gus' Ghost is no perfect movie, though jug band enthusiasts will cherish each of its 95 minutes and no doubt wish for more. For the casual viewer, or for classroom use, it might prove just as effective as a tightened 60-minute presentation. The balancing of past and present expressions of the tradition might profit by excising some of the Yokohama footage. Also, there's some recent comic shtick with helium gas and the singing of "Sweet Sue that's expendable (neither cornetist Jimmy McPartland nor trumpeter Miles Davis found it necessary to ham up the song). But even at its present feature-length running time it's an absorbing movie capable of inspiring a whole new generation of ghost-chasers.
Todd Kwait, writer, producer and director with John Sebastian and the J Band. Featuring Jim Kweskin, Maria Muldaur, Bob Weir, Samuel Charters and Geoff Muldaur.
Ezzie Films in association with Nevessa Production Woodstock. Running time with credits: 100 minutes.
Chasin' Gus' Ghost is part of the San Francisco Jug Band Festival, August 25-26.
Courtesy of Chasin' Gus' Ghost