Chasing the Roots of Jug Band Music

Chasin' Gus' Ghost
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost
Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost (movie trailer below) is a documentary that reveals the roots of jug band music. This seemingly obscure American folk-blues music genre influenced well known musicians in the area of folk rock, blues, and other forms of roots music. A key band in the history of jug band music was the Even Dozen Jug Band, founded by guitarist Stefan Grossman and guitarist Peter Siegel.

Some of the members of the Even Dozen Jug Band later became leading figures in American music: John Sebastian,  who founded Lovin’ Spoonful; renowned mandolinist Dave Grisman; Steve Katz who joined Blood, Sweat and Tears and the Blues Projekt; and blues singer Maria Muldaur. “The folkies in particular really wanted to break the cultural wall that existed in the 1960s, certainly in the South but throughout the country, and still exists today,” says director and producer Todd Kwait. “Music is the great equalizer. You can’t make a better argument against racism.”

Todd Kwait was intrigued by the musicians who inspired his favorite band, Lovin’ Spoonful. The lyrics of one of Lovin’ Spoonful’s hits 1965 hit “Do You Believe in Magic” include the following line: “If you believe in magic, don’t bother to choose if it’s jugband music or rhythm and blues…” Todd Kwait wanted to know about pre-war jugband blues style that directly inspired songwriter John Sebastian and many other 1960s era folk-rockers. His research led him to jugband music pioneer Gus Cannon.  The documentary provides details about Cannon, Sleepy Estes and other early folk-blues musicians through archival footage, live performances and interviews with famous fans like Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), blues guitarist Taj Mahal, Dave Grisman, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, and John Sebastian himself.

I really hadn’t thought much about folk music until a friend in high school invited me to his house to hear this record by Gus Cannon,” says John Sebastian. “It knocked me for a loop. Somehow Gus Cannon was able to communicate a certain amount of humor with sorrow, combining the mournful quality that harmonica player Noah Lewis provided and the hokum source of Gus’s music, which was made to draw people to the back of a wagon, to hock medicine.”

Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost unveils the pioneers of jug band music: Gus Cannon and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, The Memphis Jug Band and the Dixieland Jug Blowers from the 1920’s, and features interviews, live segments, archival footage, and photographs showing their influence on the folk and rock movements of the 1960s. The movie includes interviews and live performances by John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jim Kweskin, Geoff Muldaur, Bill Keith, Maria Muldaur, and the late Fritz Richmond from the influential Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, plus many more artists who were influenced by the great jug band musicians.

Gus Cannon was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in May 2010. Once-lost jugband music has been reclaimed by musicians like Sankofa Strings to help contextualize the African-American experience for contemporary listeners. “There is a direct historical link from Gus Cannon and the pre-war jugbands through the ‘60s folkies to these younger musicians today,” says Kwait. “It’s a happy story. Their legacy lives on.”

Filming for Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost took the crew to Japan, Sweden, and Kingston, Ontario (Canada). Closer to home, filming took place in Northern California; Woodstock, New York; Portland, Oregon; Memphis and western Tennessee; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cleveland, Ohio.

Todd Kwait is a lawyer and businessman with a lifelong passion for film. He wrote, directed and produced Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost, which is his first film. Todd is on the board of Independent Pictures in Cleveland, Ohio and is active in many trade organizations relating to his manufacturing business.

Buy the DVD: Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost


Watch the movie trailer:



Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites and Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.


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