By Richie Unterberger
The Even Dozen Jug Band, like so many young folk musicians in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, got acquainted with each other at jam sessions in Washington Square Park. After sundown, some of them reconvened to keep playing at old-time fiddler Allan Block's Sandal Shop on West Fourth Street, run by the father of noted folk-blues musician Rory Block. As Stefan Grossman remembers, "The problem was, a person who plays bluegrass, another person who plays blues, another person who plays old-timey -- how do you play together?" The solution? Jug band music!
So it was that a wealth of musicians destined to make indelible marks on both rock and folk music got some of their first experience in a recording studio on the Even Dozen Jug Band's lone, rare self-titled album, issued at the beginning of 1964. John Sebastian, Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman, David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, Joshua Rifkin: all went on to notable careers as musicians or producers.
Yet the Even Dozen Jug Band was not so much a serious bid at a music career as a fun, loose conglomeration of good friends, with a revolving cast that usually numbered between five and ten at their jams. The core members included Grossman, whose specialty was blues guitar, and was studying guitar with Reverend Gary Davis; Katz, who like many in the Village was mentored by Dave Van Ronk; Siegel, who was well-versed in the old-time music of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley; mandolinist Grisman; and pianist Rifkin, a student at the Julliard School of performing arts, who in Grossman's words "had a wealth of scholastic knowledge of classic jazz," though Rifkin played kazoo at Washington Square Park in the absence of a piano. Harmonica player John Sebastian, billed as "John Benson" on the LP, also got involved. "When we turned him on to Cannon's Jug Stompers, he just couldn't believe Noah Lewis's sound on harmonica," says Grossman. "These wonderful tunes eventually influenced him greatly in the Lovin' Spoonful."
The Even Dozen Jug Band only did a few concerts during their lifetime, including a couple of Carnegie Hall. "There was never a regular gig as a 'house band' at any coffee shop," points out jug player Dan Lauffer, now a clinical psychologist (as is banjo player Frank Goodkin). "With the size of the group it wasn't economically viable." Adds Grossman, "No one was thinking that this was going to be our life's ambition at all. We were into becoming architects, or becoming this or that."
Nonetheless the band were offered a chance to make an album by Victoria Spivey, a blues singer who'd first recorded in the 1920s. By the 1960s she was running her own label, using Bob Dylan as a session harmonicat for a few tracks on obscure blues compilation LPs. But after Izzy Young, proprietor of the Folklore Center in Greenwich Village, got involved with the Even Dozen Jug Band, they were steered to Elektra. Their advance, remembers guitarist/banjoist Peter Siegel in Elektra president Jac Holzman's autobiography (co-written with Gavin Daws) Follow the Music , was an extravagant $1,000, split twelve ways minus management's cut.
The Even Dozen Jug Band was an exuberant mix of blues, ragtime, bluegrass, and old-timey music, much of the repertoire gleaned from Grossman and Siegel's record collections. In these respects, and in the presence of singer Maria Muldaur (then Maria D'Amato), there were similarities with the most beloved young jug band of the day, Jim Kweskin's. But "whereas Kweskin's band was a much tighter musical organization, we just would blow and play," observes Grossman. "We were more like the Memphis Jug Band" -- as readily evidenced by the covers of songs that the Memphis Jug Band had cut, like "Take Your Fingers Off It" and "On the Road Again."
The Even Dozen Jug Band was the first Elektra album produced by Paul Rothchild, who had previously worked on folk recordings for Prestige, and would go on to be Elektra's most successful producer on records by Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Love, Paul Butterfield, and the Doors. According to Lauffer, Rothchild had his hands full with his first assignment, but "was able to tame [our] democratic anarchy. He got us to look at the difference between being folkie/scholar/virtuosi and being professional performers. He would talk about consistency of performance, looking to new material and movement on stage to complement the material.
"He managed to balance the needs of the recording company with personal warmth and being a motivational cheering section. He was also a wellspring of hipness and attitude, [and] waded through the turbulent currents which sometimes characterized factions in the group." But in one respect, as Grossman recalls, the producer's judgement was questionable, as Maria Muldaur "didn't really record any of her tunes that we had prepared for her to sing solo, because Paul Rothchild said her voice didn't record well."
"Maria had charisma," says Lauffer. "Half the band had a crush on her." But her involvement with a jug band man from another ensemble would lead her to leave the Even Dozens for Jim Kweskin's band, where she would sing with and eventually marry Geoff Muldaur. The Even Dozen Jug Band, despite some television appearances, weren't destined to last long anyway, according to Grossman. "We had an audition with the William Morris agency, and they wanted us to go on the road as sort of like competition to the New Christy Minstrels. That came really down to the crunch, and I said, 'Well, I'm not leaving school,' and other people said they're not leaving school. So the group basically just broke up. It was really a schism there with who wanted to go and perform professionally, and who just wanted to do it as a laugh."
Yet half the
making music their career, with success far exceeding that of the Even
Dozen Jug Band, and extending far beyond the parameters of jug band
into all areas of rock, pop, and folk. John Sebastian formed and led
Lovin' Spoonful; Steve Katz joined the Blues Project and, later in the
1960s, Blood, Sweat & Tears. Stefan Grossman, in addition to a long
career as one of the most respected acoustic folk-blues guitarists, now
runs Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, a leading purveyor of
guitar videos, audio tapes, and books. David Grisman joined the rock
Earth Opera with Peter Rowan, and then became one of the most esteemed
mandolin players in bluegrass as the pioneer of "dawg" music. Joshua
was the arranger on Judy Collins' best Elektra albums in the 1960s and
early 1970s. Maria Muldaur had a couple huge pop hits in the mid-1970s,
with "Midnight at the Oasis" and "I'm a Woman." They all came from the
Even Dozen Jug Band, whose LP is now restored to wide availability with
this CD reissue, offering a glimpse at their more modest and
-- Richie Unterberger
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