Barrels, Buckets, and Cardboard Boxes (Jug Bands Without Fiddling Around)


Everybody had finished the spaghetti, the cake was being served, and Leonard Potts Junior and the Barnstormers were banging up a cloudburst. John Phillip Sousa would have fainted dead away, but “The Stars and Stripes Forever” had never been played with more enthusiasm.

“Za-za-zee-za-za, thwack,” duetted the kazoo and bucket. In the cultural hall parents futilely pulled their children down from precarious tiptoe perches on folding chairs.

“Thomas, stop that,” reprimanded one young mother as she snatched two ragout-smeared paper plates from her son who had been intently banging them together in accompaniment to a trash-can-lid solo.

Mothers looked in exasperation at each other. After tonight nothing bangable would be safe around their offspring.

The jugs finished their solo. “Hooga hooga hunk hunk hunk hunk hunk.” Then as the band geared up for a crashing finale, even the ward organist was stomping her feet and clapping her hands. She stopped when she caught herself shouting, “Eeee-haaa!” The Relief Society president looked over the long rows of tables in amazement. “It’s the first time,” she muttered, “the kids haven’t been most interested in who got the biggest piece of cake.” The aspiring mother of a concert pianist smiled in anguish as her future prodigy looked earnestly in her face and asked, “Mom, can I learn to play the washboard like Leonard Potts?”

After wolfing down the remains of the ward dinner, the Barnstormers packed away their jugs, garbage cans, broomsticks, cardboard boxes, kazoos, and washboards. But before you could say “possum up a gum tree,” someone from the audience came and asked Leonard if his band would play at the next stake dance. “Sure,” said Leonard dropping completely the loquacious southern drawl he had used during the show, “we’d be happy to.”

“Leonard” is actually Curtis Craghead. His roommate, Richard Bailey, is the group’s second headman. Curtis and Richard currently live in a basement apartment in Provo, Utah, that they affectionately call “The Gopher Hole.” The rest of the Barnstormers are friends Curtis and Richard rustle up when somebody asks the group to perform.

Their instruments aren’t ideally suited for a polonaise. Their legato tends to be troppo staccato. But even if they can’t lilt a lullaby, they sure can trounce up the air.

Asked about the music his group plays, Curtis said, “Well, I’m sure Alexander Schreiner never got started this way.” Curtis grew up a music-lesson outcast. “Other kids were busy with piano lessons. I sort of liked to bang pie pans and smash lids together myself.” Now an accomplished one-man-band washboard artist, Curtis should be an inspiration to all lid bangers.

So, if you grew up sadly watching your more persistent friends begin playing with school bands and orchestras and are regretfully thinking your days of musical glory have passed you by, cheer up. Get out your lids and spoons and start banging again. Who knows? Like Richard or Curtis, you could be the rage at the next stake dance.

Yes, in a jug band, musical geniuses and rhythm-band dropouts can coexist side by side. “People with ability” can graduate to guitars, banjos, and fiddles. “Bangers” can keep on crashing lids together, puffing on jugs, twanging Jew’s harps, or picking out tunes on a dulcimore.

According to Richard the jug band emerged from the Appalachian mountains and received its name from one of its major instruments—a jug.

“The jug sounds like a leaky tuba when it’s played,” said Richard. Even though the instruments emigrated from Appalachia, a mountainous coal mining region of eastern Tennessee, the style of music has stuck. Jug bands play old time or “hillbilly” music. Whether jug band musicians are Appalachian residents or Scouts who took their shoes off to perform for a ward dinner, the foot stomping and mountain rhythms are the same.

“Before purists throw their hands up in despair,” chuckled Richard, “they should remember that the hillbilly jug band is an important American contribution to music. The chamber orchestra came from Europe; the jug band comes from America.”

Many instruments in a jug band are homemade—Curtis and Richard have made most of their instruments, from the fiddles on down. Playing in a jug band is fun, not too complicated, and hillbilly music is enjoying something of a revival.

Since the popular music market has realized there are more kinds of music than rock in the world, jug band music has the beginnings of a serious audience. “But,” Curtis added as he dramatically thrashed his washboard, “it’s still a way off till a jug band plays a concert in Carnegie Hall.”

“We’ve put on lots of square dances and programs for branches and wards though,” said Richard.

“Yeah,” continued Curtis, “we all get together and play our instruments. I don’t know if we’re all that good, but we’ve never been bodily thrown out of anyplace.”

Although it’s difficult to cram the complete how to’s of jug band music into one easy lesson, with a few basics you and your friends could become as successful as Curtis and Richard. With luck you won’t be thrown out at your first performance either.

Probably the best place to start is with the jug itself. Besides being a musical instrument, in Appalachia the jug has other less pristine uses and is made of crockery. Richard and Curtis have a genuine crockery jug, but nowadays they’re hard to find and also expensive. A good substitution is a one-gallon glass jug painted to look like crockery.

The jug is played by blowing across its mouth. (For physics enthusiasts, it makes a sound because the air from your mouth rushing past the opening of the bottle makes the air in the bottle vibrate.) The larger the jug the lower the sound will be and the harder you will have to blow to hear it.

“Getting more than a short hoot from a jug takes real lungs,” said Richard. Jugs can be tuned by pouring water into them. This makes the air space in the jugs smaller and creates a higher pitch. Simple melodies can be played by tuning a series of jugs to a piano or harmonica.

Variations on many classical percussion instruments used in bands and orchestras can be found in jug bands, “along with a few they’d never touch,” said Curtis. In Curtis and Richard’s band the orchestra’s proud armada of tympani, bass, and snare drums is replaced by barrels, buckets, and large cardboard boxes.

Richard, who is the instrument inventor, suggested using large metal oil drums as tympani. “Buckets can be used as snare drums, and a large cardboard box sounds like a bass drum.” These amazing musical wonders are arranged around the musician who beats them with wooden spoons, old shoes, or rolled up John Schaum piano books. “I never learned to read music anyway,” explained Richard.

Great grandmother’s wash-day miracle, the washboard, can be resuscitated to all sorts of exciting musical applications. Curtis built one into a complete one-man band. He attached cymbals, wood blocks, bells, and horns around the rim. Accompanying himself with a kazoo, Curtis rasped the washboard’s surface, thumped the cymbals, clonked the wood blocks, honked the horns, and came off sounding like an orchestrated boiler banging its pipes with perfect pitch just before it exploded.

“One night a friend and I were in the apartment of a friend playing away. The landlord stuck his head down the stairs and shouted, ‘A little of that goes a long way!’” said Curtis.

When playing the washboard, unless you have tough nails or calloused cuticles, you’ll need something other than your bare hands to thrash over its surface. Curtis uses thimbles on his fingers. A wire brush can be used too. If after unsuccessfully scrounging out the attic you haven’t found an old washboard, look for one in an old army surplus store. They are still manufactured and sold.

“Other percussion instruments are all around you. Just keep you eyes open,” said Richard. “If you see something unusual, try and play it. Make an instrument out of it.”

For triangles and chimes, use horseshoes and lengths of old pipe. Try stringing a horseshoe on a piece of leather and striking it with an old spoon. Pipe can be suspended from an overhead bar in the same manner. Tune these by cutting pieces off the horseshoe or pipe. The longer the pipe or larger the horseshoe, the lower the tone. As you make them smaller or shorter, the tone will become higher.

Metal spoons also make a unique percussion instrument. Curtis has fashioned a holder connecting two spoons together back to back. With this instrument he plays “spoon rolls” (sounding like tiny drum rolls) by snapping the spoons down his fingers or vibrating them between his thigh and free hand. The holder helps but is not absolutely necessary. You can take two metal spoons and hold one between your thumb and forefinger and the second one between your forefinger and second finger. This works almost as well as using a holder.

“It may sound unbelievable,” said Curtis, “but back when talent shows were in their prime on radio and TV, many a spoon player walked away with the top honors.”

“One of the most neglected percussion instruments is your own mouth,” said Richard. “You can get surprising melodies by striking your cheeks.” Lower your jaw, and hold your lips in an “O.” Play your mouth by hitting your cheeks, changing the tone by varying the tension of your cheek muscles, the shape of your mouth, and the distance your jaw is lowered. Be careful not to get too excited playing this “instrument” or you could come away black and blue with a very sore jaw for a day or two.

A jug band wouldn’t be a jug band without a washtub bass. “Well, in our case it’s a trash can bass,” sighed Curtis. This is a basic instrument of the string section of the band, sometimes backed up by guitars, banjos, and fiddles (known to some as violins).

The washtub bass is made with a large tin washtub (“or trash can,” reminded Curtis), a length of broomstick handle, and some tough cord. The simplest method is to make a hole in the bottom of an overturned washtub, pass the rope through it, and tie a knot large enough that it won’t pull back through. Tie the other end of the twine to the top of the broomhandle, place the broomhandle on the rim of the washtub, and pull it back till the string is tight. The bass is played by plucking the tight string.

The tone of the bass is changed by changing the length of the string. Holding the string against the broomhandle, move your hand up and down. “This instrument takes a little practice to learn to play, but I managed to pick it up without too much difficulty,” said Richard. Going up and down the broomstick can be rough on the hands because of the coarseness of the rope. Try wearing a leather glove on the hand that does the sliding.

Another string instrument from Appalachia that is quite easily made and played is the dulcimore (sometimes known as a dulcimer). It is a three-or four-stringed instrument shaped somewhat like an elongated violin. This Appalachian instrument has even received acclaim from “serious” musicians. It sits flat on a table or lap, and the musician plays it by sliding a bar up and down the neck of the dulcimore while strumming or plucking the strings.

“I don’t know how to read music, and I’ve tried for years to find instruments I could play. After I played another guy’s dulcimore I said, ‘Man, I want it!’ With the dulcimore, if I can whistle the tune, I can pick it out. It’s easy to learn how to play,” said Richard.

“I’ve made three dulcimores. My first one was a copy of a friend’s. You can pick up plans for dulcimores from a lot of music stores, or you can get them from books in the library.”

Other string instruments for jug bands aren’t generally homemade. Guitars and banjos aren’t exactly a one-afternoon project. But Richard and Curtis have successfully made guitars, fiddles, and even a concoction called a “bantar.”

“Curtis and I once had a contest to see who could make the weirdest instrument. I made something that is a cross between a banjo and a guitar—a bantar,” said Richard. “I won!”

“Fiddles are an important part of hillbilly music. In earlier days regular violins weren’t so plentiful. If somebody wanted a fiddle he had to make his own. So people started making fiddles out of just about anything,” explained Richard.

“The wooden-box fiddle comes from back then. I suppose if Tom Sawyer had played a fiddle, it would have been made from a cigar box or something similar. I’d heard of cigar-box fiddles, but I’d never seen one. So one day I decided to make myself one.

“My fiddle can be disassembled. I use an old fork to hold the strings below the bridge, and the bridge is movable. The neck of the fiddle fits in a hole cut in the end of the box and is held in place by the tension of the strings.”

Both Curtis and Richard readily admit that playing the guitar, banjo, or fiddle is more difficult than playing a bucket. But with a guitar most beginners with a self-instruction booklet can learn enough basic chords to get by.

“And if you really can’t get it,” added Curtis, “use an autoharp. You just press the key and get the chord you want. It’s what we use instead of a guitar.”

For the fiddle, however, there is no simple substitution. The distinctive plucking and bowing of the fiddle are purely country style. The fiddle isn’t recommended as an instrument for beginners unless you have strong ears and the dogs in your neighborhood don’t howl.

“But,” said Richard, “if you don’t have a fiddle player, have a loud kazoo player.” Better yet, have two or three kazoo players “zumming” away in harmony. A kazoo is as easy to play as humming, because that’s exactly what you do. You hum into it, it adds some static, and sends it out the other end as a “zum.”

Kazoos can be bought for less than a dollar, or they can be easily made. A simple kazoo is made with a large tooth comb and a piece of wax paper. Fold the wax paper over the comb, hold it up to your mouth, and hum loudly. Or take a short cardboard tube, fasten a piece of wax paper over one end of it with an elastic, and hum into the other end. Punch a few holes in the cardboard tube and cover and uncover them with your fingers to change the tone of the kazoo. Richard suggested sticking a kazoo into the end of an old bugle or trombone. “It really jazzes it up.”

That familiar twang of mountain music is supplied by a Jew’s harp. The Jew’s harp is a small lyre-shaped instrument with a metal tongue. The harp is placed against the teeth and the metal tongue is plucked. The quality of the twang produced is controlled by the shape of the mouth around the harp. “To avoid cut lips when playing a Jew’s harp, keep them back from the vibrating metal tongue,” said Curtis.

And finally there’s the harmonica. “You don’t just pick up a harmonica and start grinding out tunes, but learning the basics isn’t difficult,” advised Richard. While there are instruction booklets in music stores and libraries, many people find the simple instruction booklet included with the purchase of the harmonica the most helpful. “It’s not absolutely necessary to read music to play the harmonica. I can play it,” said Richard. “Once the basics are learned it can be played by ear.”

After you have assembled all the instruments, your room will probably look something like a classy vacant lot. But you’ll have the essentials for a jug band, lacking only one thing—the music. “Since many of the instruments can be played by ear, a lot of the music we use is taken from the radio or from memory,” explained Richard. “A kazoo player with a good memory and an on-pitch hummer can reproduce any song.”

The jugs, washboard, and drums can be added to imitate or parody a popular tune. If there happens to be someone who reads music among the washboards and buckets, investing in a collection of old-time folk songs could be wise. If nobody reads music, get an autoharp and some loud kazoos.

Even if you are a novice, arranging guitar parts for a jug band isn’t too difficult. Most of the simpler folk songs use only three basic chords: the tonic chord, the dominant chord, and the subdominant chord. For example, in the key of G the three chords are G, C, and D7. If you learn these three chords, you’ll probably be able to sing most folk songs written in the key of G. (“Get an autoharp,” sighed Curtis.)

Working out the vocal parts and deciding when the kazoo will play or how long the spoon solo should last are some of the tackier problems in arranging music for a jug band. But with patience these small details can be worked out.

If your band decides to become “professional” you might want to give it a name. Curtis and Richard selected the name Leonard Potts Junior and the Barnstormers because Leonard Potts was the name of a two-ton truck they had rebuilt. “We decided our music sounded a lot like good old Leonard starting up in the morning,” laughed Richard.

Leonard Potts Junior and the Barnstormers were so popular at one point that Curtis and Richard decided to cut an album. “We had the jacket all printed up; then we ran out of money. So we have lots of record jackets, but nothing to go in them,” explained Curtis.

When you get your jug band together for the first time, don’t think of cutting any records right off. In fact, you might want to practice in a good soundproof place “where nobody can throw things at you,” warned Curtis.

But the practice it takes to get a jug band together will all pay off after the first performance. You could be the stars of the next ward dinner. You might become such a popular activity night attraction you’ll start getting fan mail. “Maybe people will stop throwing things at you when you play,” added Curtis.

But don’t expect Alexander Schreiner to get too excited. And don’t set your heart on playing a concert in the Tabernacle.

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten

[photo] Getting a hoot out of a jug takes real lung power. Air rushing past the mouth of the jug causes the air in the jug to vibrate with a low, bass tone. And as Merrill knows, playing a jug is no job for pooped puffers

[photo] John Phillip Sousa would hardly recognize it, but Curtis Craighead’s rendition of the “Stars and Stripes Forever” on the one-man washboard band still stirs the blood (or at least the eardrums)

[photo] Merrill Dodge plays one of the oldest musical instruments—the mouth

[photo] One of the talents you developed as a really young child—banging your mom’s spoons together—turns out to be a useful skill in jug bands

[photo] A stick, some wire, a garbage can, and a lot of enthusiasm supplied by Merrill provides the band with the rhythm and harmony of a bass fiddle

[photo] Richard, who makes most of the Barnstormers’ instruments, plucks away on his handmade dulcimore. An American folk instrument, the dulcimore in jug bands adds an Appalacian style twang

[photo] If Tom Sawyer had played a fiddle, it probably would have been made from a cigar box. Richard’s creation may never rival a Stradivarius, but Tom wouldn’t mind and neither do the people who hoe down with the Barnstormers

[photo] When washboards and jugs can’t quite carry the melodic line, an autoharp comes to the rescue of musical novices. Here Merrill Dodge selects a chord, presses a key, and strums. Voila! Instant musical prowess!