By Mike Greenblatt
They rock! They roll! They blow into jugs, scrub washboards, strum guitars, blow whistles, pluck mandolins and shout exclamations in a zippy “Beale Street Breakdown” that sent the few 1930 record buyers who actually bought this single into a tizzy! Band leader Jed Davenport blew the mouth-harp. He had previously recorded two sides in 1929 — “How Long How Long Blues” and “Cow Cow Blues” where he sang in an energetic fashion; but as the 1930s dawned, he hooked up with the Brothers McCoy, to cut six jug band classics — that’s it, just six. But, they were good enough and stood the test of time enough that 80 years later in 2010, they were nominated to be in The Jug Band Hall Of Fame.
Kansas Joe and Charlie McCoy were the husband and the brother-in-law of blues superstar Memphis Minnie (1897-1973), and backed her up on a lot of her classic sides. The most popular of the six tunes they cut with Jed has to be “You Ought To Move Out Of Town,” but this sprightly-picked doozy packs a Memphis wallop and has since become a staple of every Jug Band. From Jim Kweskin’s in the 1960s (all us hippies loved Jim Kweskin) to Maria Muldaur’s in the 1970s (all us males loved the sexy jiggle that she added in her peasant blouse while breaking it on down).
Always in the shadow of the much more popular Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Jed’s sextet soon faded into oblivion, never again even setting foot inside a recording facility. There are those who say Davenport was riddled with jealousy and bitterness at his lack of success. We do know he originated in Mississippi, settled in Tennessee, played trumpet as well as harmonica and jug, but seemed to comfortably settle into obscurity. He was last seen singing on the streets of 1960s Memphis for chump change and obliging readily when asked to join various local medicine shows.
Medicine shows were a phenomenon of 19th Century America that usually traveled by truck, with horse and wagon teams that housed a variety-show approach to entertainmentwhile selling “miracle elixirs” known as “snake oil” that promised to cure any and all ailments (it was usually alcohol). The acts consisted of a magician, comedian, singer, musician, storyteller and oftentimes a fascinating flea circus. Davenport flourished in such circumstances and sold his fair share of product while no doubt using a lot of it himself.
When radio supplanted such shows, and the Great Depression had an even stronger effect on reducing the frequency of medicine shows to but a mere trickle, Davenport became something of a local Memphis eccentric, singing you a song in the street for a nickel or a dime. It is said that Elvis Presley’s “Mr. Songman,” written by Don H. Sumner, is either about ol’ Jed himself or those like him.
“Here’s another dime for you, Mr. Songman/
Sing the loneliness of broken dreams away if you can/
Yes it’s only me and you, Mr. Songman/
Take away the night, sing away my hurt, Mr. Songman.”
John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records says, “if you can find a clean copy of the ‘Beale Street Breakdown,’ it will probably run you at least three grand. I’ve seen really beat up ones going for hundreds. Jed Davenport and his crew might’ve only had that one 1930 session but those six songs have been etched in the memories of musicians ever since.”