Legendary folk singer-guitarist Jim Kweskin is more than a bit of an anomaly. Active at the fertile dawn of the early '60s East Coast folk revival movement, Kweskin, who appears Saturday at Altadena's Coffee Gallery Backstage, took a musical route quite contrary to the prevailing methodology of his contemporaries. As leader of the Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, he traded in an earthy, swinging, joyous mixture of old-timey hokum, blues, stomps and rags, distinctly unlike the studied austerity of such protest singers as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Borne of a lifelong fascination with vernacular American music, this resolutely traditional approach has served Kweskin well.
"I was instinctively drawn to music," Kweskin said. "Neither of my parents were musically inclined but they loved music and my dad had a collection of old 78s. He loved swing and Benny Goodman but also had a few older, more traditional records by Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. I grew up loving that stuff, and I mean as a little kid, while all of my friends were listening to pop music on the radio. When it became rock 'n' roll, and I loved all that rhythm and blues stuff, but for me really it was the older artists like Bechet and Cab Calloway. And I was reading all about the best jazz musicians in Downbeat and Metronome so I was aware of all that at a very young age."
The budding jazzbo soon found himself taking a musical detour, but it wasn't long before his creative pendulum swung back. "In my mid-teens my parents sent me to summer camp, and the counselors there had guitars and were playing folk songs, and then Pete Seeger came to the camp and sang for us," Kweskin said. "I loved that, I loved folk music, got into all of that, Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, and so I started playing guitar, singing folk songs myself."
"After a while, I heard people who were doing more swinging stuff. I hear [blues-bent folkie] Eric Von Schmidt singing 'Buddy Bolden's Blues,' which was a Jelly Roll Morton song, at [Cambridge, Mass., folk epicenter] Club 47 and it just clicked — I realized I could be doing this myself on guitar. And then I heard Mississippi John Hurt and I really loved that, the old blues finger picking style and I got into that. Then I came across the Harry Smith Folkways 'Anthology' with all those great songs by the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers, and that was it. I was playing all this jazzy stuff in clubs and all these people, friends, would just come up onstage, with a washboard, a jug, whatever they had and it would become a jam, onstage. And really it was old-time jazz played on folk instruments, that was what the Jug Band was."
Kweskin became one of Club 47's top draws, where between sets, he frequently invited a young aspirant, Bob Dylan, up to sing a few numbers while Kweskin was on break. ("Dylan and I hung out together quite a bit, that's a whole other story.") Things began moving fast for Kweskin. "One night the president of Vanguard records was there [at 47] and he came up and asked if I'd like to make a record with that band. I said, 'Well, that really wasn't a band, but give me three months, I'll put one together and then we can record.'"
The result, 1963's self-titled debut album, was a potent mix of stellar musicianship and cheerful whimsy. It ignited wide spread interest in the jug band tradition and placed Kweskin and talented cohorts (including Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur and the enigmatic counter-counterculture guru Mel Lyman) at the folk revival's forefront, resulting in appearances at the fabled Newport folk festival.
"Newport was a great thing, and for me it was an opportunity to meet all those great older musicians," Kweskin said. "People like Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Maybelle Carter, all these amazing musicians who had recorded in the 1920s and '30s, and here they were and they still sounded pretty damn good. For me that was an amazing opportunity. Newport was quite a blend, one of the most exciting events, with the older artists and people like Dylan and Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, who brought in all the younger fans."
After more than half a dozen well received albums, the Jug Band receded from view and Kweskin himself has drifted in and out of music ever since. At this Coffee Gallery gig, he'll team up with another veteran folk icon, Happy Traum.
"At the time, there were two scenes, one in New York and one in Boston, where I was. And Happy Traum, with his [late] brother Artie was a big part of the New York Scene," Kweskin said. "And we kept running into each other, many times over the years, but had never played together. Then three or four years ago, one of us had a gig, I can't remember if it was his or mine, but someone invited the other to jam, so we did. And Happy had learned a lot from [famed bluesman] Brownie McGhee, so our styles are very compatible; our taste in songs are very compatible to jazz, pop, standards, country, blues and ragtime, and it's a great duo."
"I love to share songs with the audience and Happy's the same way," Kweskin said. "The audiences are a mix, a lot of older folks but there are plenty of younger ones too, so we're passing on the tradition and I think that's great. It's in my soul, and I'll do it until I can't do it anymore. I am very grateful and fortunate that, at 75, my body and my voice have held up well enough so that I can still do it."
"The main thing is, I love it."
What: Jim Kweskin and Happy Traum
Where: Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 Lake St., Altadena
When: Saturday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m.
More info: (626) 798-6236, coffeegallery.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."