Innumerable musicians are in “cover bands,” wherein they reproduce other artists’ usually well-known songs, but singer and guitarist Jim Kweskin turns this common precept on its ear.
Mr. Kweskin, who plays Claremont’s Folk Music Center at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 3, has made a name for going on 60 years by finding old songs—in most cases very old songs—and adding his own imprint.
“I was talking to an audience recently and I asked them, ‘If I do a song that the last time it was recorded was ninety or a hundred years ago, and I’m covering it?’” Mr. Kweskin mused. “And someone in the audience said, ‘No, you’re uncovering it.’ And I like that. I thought that was really cool. That’s what I do, I uncover songs.”
He’s been providing this service to songs of a certain age since the early 1960s, when along with Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Bob Siggins and Bruno Wolfe, he founded the influential Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band. The Boston-based group took pre-World War II material from blues, jazz, pop and country and filtered it through their lens to arrive at something that struck a chord with the burgeoning folk scene.
Mr. Kweskin was born in 1940 and was a teenager during rock ‘n’ roll’s nascent, golden age. His father’s old jazz records were the catalyst for his interest in what was then, as is now, considered an archaic novelty by contemporary mainstream consumers. “As soon as I heard them I just loved that music. I fell in love with it at a young age.”
Also atypically for the early-1950s, he would scour antique stores for obscure 78s from such “uncool” to the teens of the era artists such as doomed early jazz cornetist Bix Biederbecke and legendary folk/blues 12-string guitarist, singer and composer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter.
“The thing that made me a little bit different from my friends is I was listening to this stuff even before high school. When I was ten or eleven years old I was listening to Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Lead Belly and Bessie Smith. I didn’t know anything about the jug bands. I learned that later. But I did know about the jazz bands and I loved that music. I still do.”
But this is not to infer he was unmoved by the carnal thrum of the raw early rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s; He was, after all, a teenaged boy.
“I also loved what was happening on the radio. I was a typical teenager in the sense in that I used to go to parties and dances, and danced to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The first records I ever bought on my own were 78s, and I bought them together: it was Chuck Berry doing ‘Maybelline’ and Fats Domino doing ‘Ain’t That a Shame.’”
As musicians say, the kid’s ears were wide open.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind pop music in the late forties and early fifties either. I loved Nat King Cole. [In 1948] he did ‘Nature Boy.’ I thought that was a great record. And Vaughn Monroe doing ‘Riders in the Sky’ [in 1949]. I liked that music. I still do.”
The Jug Band hit its stride in 1963 with the release of its debut, “Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band,” on Vanguard. The band quickly won a following with its blend of humor, stellar musicianship and eclectic song selection.
By the time they released their fourth record, “Garden of Joy,” in 1967, they’d hosted up and comers Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt as opening acts, and had influenced younger musicians on both coasts, who would go on to form the Lovin’ Spoonful in New York, Long Beach’s The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (which for a time included Claremont musical legend Chris Darrow, son of longtime COURIER cartoonist Paul Darrow), and in San Francisco, a little band called The Grateful Dead.
After the Jug Band disbanded, Mr. Kweskin went on to release about a dozen more records on his own or with various collaborators, with the latest, “Unjugged,” coming out in 2017.
Along with his interpretive skills, Mr. Kweskin is also a highly-regarded guitarist. His playing is influenced by the ragtime and blues fingerpicking of Blind Boy Fuller and Mississippi John Hurt. He overlays these distinct styles with sophisticated jazz voicings, creating a unique hybrid.
He calls himself a “songster.”
“In my shows I always talk about where the song came from and its history,” he said. “I’m not going to give a lecture, but a little bit about the song: the artist, who recorded on the recordings I heard it from. And then of course I don’t imitate the style of the artist I learned it from, I just give it my own interpretation.”
He’s appearing solo at the Folk Music Center, with a repertoire that reaches into country, bluegrass, blues, ragtime, jazz, western swing, pop and folk. “I like to mix it up,” he said. “It makes it a lot of fun for me. It gives me a lot of variety.”
Aside from a gap in the 1980s and ‘90s, where he was publicly inactive in the music business, Mr. Kweskin has been at it since his early 20s. He’s approaching 80 years old now and has lived in West Hollywood for about a dozen years, so a solo gig in Claremont isn’t too much of a production.
He’s grateful that he’s able to continue to record and tour and shows no signs of slowing down, save an appropriately modest travel schedule.
“I have contemporaries that are still doing it,” he said. “Taj Majal is still doing it. Tom Rush is still doing it. Bonnie Raitt is a little younger than me, but she’s still out there doing it. John Prine, John Hammond Jr., Eric Anderson, there’s still quite a few of us out there.”
He’s currently in the midst of mixing a new album featuring singer Samoa Wilson that he hopes to release in spring 2019.
“I just like music,” Mr. Kweskin said. “I don’t discriminate between one kind or another. There is music that I don’t like, but it’s just a record or an artist that I don’t care for. Duke Ellington said it perfectly: ‘There’s only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’ And after that, good music can be in any shape or form you find it.”
Tickets for Jim Kweskin’s 7:30 p.m. November 3 show at Claremont’s Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave., are $20, and are available at the store or at the door.
For more info, visit jimkweskin.com.