I have always believed in the power of heritage, and we—the community of Memphis— have the distinct privilege of being the recipients of a rich musical legacy. This legacy embodies in America a similar cultural identity to that of Mozart and Haydn in Vienna. One cannot visit Memphis without hearing the blues, visiting Graceland, or eating world-class barbecue. In regard to our students, however, portions of Memphis’ roots are overlooked in the classroom; specifically earlier genres such as jug bands, gospel quartets, and fiddle groups.
In early November 2016, in representation of the Memphis Music Initiative, I took three general music classes from Overton High School to “The Rock and Soul Museum,” as part of their field trip experience. After the museum tour, while eating lunch in Handy Park, some students asked, “Who was W.C. Handy?” and “Why is there a star on the sidewalk for the Memphis Jug Band?” These questions astounded me because these two legends played an integral role in the development of American music. It occurred to me that these students hadn’t had much—if any—exposure to early Memphis music. Of course they knew about the well-known blues and rockabilly artists such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but when I mentioned Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Memphis Minnie, and the Spirit of Memphis, they appeared baffled.
The next week, during our post-experience reflection, my teacher leader Joel Valdez and I began collaborating on a new concept. We embarked on a project, not just to teach the students about some of the missing links in their musical heritage, but to give them the opportunity to experience them first hand. Our idea was to recreate an early jug band ensemble. After all, a project of this magnitude would cross-utilize several subjects of the fine arts. First, because many of the early jug bands used household items such as pots, pans, washtubs, washboards, and whiskey jugs to create their music, the students had a “hands on” experience in the cooperative learning process. Next, by writing their own lyrics, they engaged in the literary arts. Furthermore, by simply participating in the process they were inserting themselves into a vital piece of Memphis’ history.
We decided, however, to take the concept one step further and split the classes into groups based on student potential and strength. There was a composition team responsible for learning how to construct and compose two forms of jug band music: the twelve bar blues and the verse-chorus song format. Next, there was the instrument building team who made washtub basses and other musical devices. Finally, there was the performance team who was charged with bringing the compositions to life and playing the instruments.
All of this culminated in a recording studio project, in which all of the students participated in the production of their jug band song. At first, the students seemed a little detached from the process, but during the experience of “laying down” their individual parts, they became thoroughly engaged. In the end we ended up with a quality recording that, in my opinion, was a hit. And as a result of that recording, we came to the conclusion that this project was far from over and worth pursuing further. After consulting with the students, we consolidated all three jug bands into an after-school jug band with the intent of performing live.
I have always loved gifting the knowledge and experience of music. I gain a deep satisfaction when I witness the expression on a student’s face after they make a connection or acquire a new realization. But this experience was different. I was not just a teacher administering information, but I too was a participant in the process. Moreover, I witnessed students without formal musical training realize their true potential. I am not sure who benefited from this process more—the students or the teacher.
Joel Schnackel is a teacher-led fellow with the Memphis Music Initiative and a Ph.D. candidate focusing on historical musicology at the University of Memphis. When not in the classroom, he is a freelance double bassist in the greater Mid-South area.