Wednesday, November 23, 2005
What's in the Jug?
A jug band needs a jug, and the one we got is a dandy. At first, Dave gave me a slew of ceramic Kaoliang bottles, flower vases, and so on to use. They worked pretty well, but then, on a trip back home to Omaha, Nebraska (the gateway to the square states), I noticed an old whiskey jug being used as a doorstop in my folks' house. I picked it up, tried it out, and wow. It produced a rich sound like no Kaoliang bottle ever had. Of course, I snagged it and brought it back to the Muddy Basin. Although we always to prefer to use Taiwan-made products for our instruments, I couldn't argue with the thumpin' sound of an old American ceramic whiskey jug. And it turns out that the jug is probably pretty old.
There's a stamp on the side that says "H.W. Huguley Co.; 134 Canal St.; Boston, Mass." I haven't been able to find much about the specific jug that I have, but the company did indeed exist between the years 1886 and 1916. As far as I know, they're not around anymore. (If anyone has more info, let me know.) Apparently, they produced lots of different whiskeys with some fun names which include "Huguley's Old Vatted Armor", "Moon Mountain", and my favorite, "Myopia Club". (Found that fun here.)
Because the jug is so old, I don't drink from it, and because it was a doorstop for decades, the dusty and musty stench that comes out of it when you blow into it is pretty bad. so before I play it, I pour a shot or two of whiskey into it as a deoderant. The jug seems to feel lighter and happier when it's holding some whiskey, as it was originally created to do so long ago. Plus, when you play it, the wafting whiskey fumes surround your head, and that creates a nice environment to play some jug music in.
A lot of people wonder how you make a sound out of a jug. Some claim that you blow across the top of it, like a pop bottle, to make a whistling sound. However, I don't think this is the way that those old jug bands did it. One reason is that when you listen to the old recordings of jug bands, the jug sound is nothing like a whistling sound. It changes pitch and slides up and down the scale. You can't do that by using the "pop bottle method". The second reason is that you would hyperventilate halfway through a song trying to get a whistling sound out of a jug. Plus, most snapshots of the players from the heyday show the jug players blowing straight into their jugs. You can't get a whistling sound that way without blowing a lung out.
The method that I use is one in which you pucker up your lips and blow through them. Trumpet players and didgeridoo players know what I'm talking about. It's all in the embouchure. Some people also claim that the jug player can also sing while exhaling, but I find it throws off everything else.
So what's in the jug? Two shots of whiskey, some spit from the spray of playing, lots of dust, and a fond memory or two for the lucky souls that got to drain the whiskey jug in the first place so I can play it today.