The Judges Jug Band

Further on the magic of music theme, I am reminded of one of the very best social events I ever enjoyed with a group of judges. We were at our annual conference at Deerhurst in Huntsville, chosen because it has excellent conference facilities for about 250 people, is centrally located in the province and, most important, in April and May is (or was) relatively inexpensive. Among the housing at the resort are some four-storey buildings which feature housekeeping/bedroom units built around an atrium over the ground floor. On this particular occasion, one of the atria had been set up as a hospitality area for the judges to gather after the formal, and somewhat stuffy, ceremonial dinner was over.

In the atrium, there was a bar and a piano, and a couple of very talented judges who loved to play the piano for singsongs. Someone had brought prepared song sheets with all the words. The songs were of an earlier era: Lilli Marlene, Sweet Georgia Brown, Up a Lazy River, The White Cliffs of Dover, Red Red Robin, Goodnight Irene, Mockin’ Bird Hill, Shine On Harvest Moon, Tea for Two, Till We Meet Again. The kind of things my parents and their friends would sing when they really let their hair down, or when sitting around the campfire on annual camping trips.

A group of other judges, older men whom I never did get to know before they retired, came with their jug band instruments. I had never seen or heard a jug band before. Apparently, they became very popular in the 1920s, playing a mixture of blues, ragtime and jazz. These judges had all manner of traditional and improvised home-made instruments: guitars, mandolins, banjos, a washtub bass, a washboard, some spoons, probably even a traditional jug. As the pianists played the piano, the jug band played too. Their informality and energy were infectious.

Before long, it became easier and easier to give out the song sheets. Even the most reticent of my colleagues joined in. The singing went on and on, and the music of the piano, the jug band and the voices reverberated around the atrium. By the end of the evening, everyone, and I mean everyone, was either singing or dancing up a storm to the music. It was the most phenomenal event. Who would believe that somber and serious black-robed judges could party so well? Someone asked one of my colleagues if I was inebriated. “No,” she said, “that’s just the way she is.” It’s true. I only drank water that night, but I will admit that I was exhilarated by the (dare I use the word?) effervescence of the evening. It was so delightful, and so unexpected.

For several conferences thereafter, we tried to rekindle the communal singing; so long as the two pianists were present and someone brought a guitar. Then, the bench changed, and the appeal of the old songs waned. We brought new song sheets with the lyrics to Broadway, folk, hits of the 60s and even the 70s. All to no avail. The new generation of judges had no interest in singing, although they would dance with great energy to the right kind of music. It occurs to me that maybe the key was the jug band. Had the jug band survived, perhaps their making music would have broken the ice.

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3 comments

  1. Anne-Marie and Tom

    Another great post, Marion, and a nice segue from your previous one which begs the question as to what trauma has occurred to the modern psyche which has inhibited and stifled our creative drives so much as to no longer see this kind of exuberance indulged in or expressed very often anymore.

    True to the skiffle (a direct relative of the jugbands) roots of The Beatles, George Harrison, in his later years, used to carry a simple ukelele wherever he went so that whenever the occasion presented itself for such an expression of spontaneous joy he was prepared to initiate it. At Harrison’s funeral, Paul McCartney played his band-mate’s song, ‘Something’ accompanied by a ukulele in a fitting tribute to his friend.

    We were at a concert of newly created modern music many, many years ago at the Edward Johnson building Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in which the featured composition was a Kazoo symphony. At the start of the evening kazoos were distributed to everyone in the audience and we were instructed that at a given time in the program we would be invited to contribute our portion to the symphony and to play what we felt might enhance the proceedings. The piece started with a formal orchestra and had many of the elements of modern music hinting somewhat of Scriabin, Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. At the appointed time, the composer/conductor gave us the signal to take up our kazoos and play. What happened next was exciting and, oddly, sublime as an incredible wave of kazoos supplemented the symphony’s in the most musical way, perhaps even surpassing the set piece in melodic beauty and invention.

    We are certain that afterwards no member of that audience would have turned down an opportunity to play a kazoo or any other formal or makeshift instrument given the invitation to do so. Your post is a reminder of how we must regain and encourage extemporaneous musical making amongst friends and family again and regain this lost delight.

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