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Cannon's Jug Stompers

Gus Cannon, Ashley Thomson and Noah Lewis.

Gus Cannon was born September 12, 1883 on Henderson Newell's plantation in Marshall County Mississippi. His parents, John and Ellen, were share croppers; his father had been a slave. Gus was the youngest of 10 brothers. When Gus was 12 he went to Clarksdale with his brother Tom to work in the cotton fields. Around this time Gus took an interest in music and made a banjo from a guitar neck and a bread pan. He learned songs from local musicians, mostly country songs that he strummed. He then learned to finger pick from a local musician named Bud Jackson. Gus got his first real banjo when he was 15; his brother won it in a crap game.

At this time there were several banjo/fiddle groups in Clarksdale, including W. C. Handy and his band with Jim Turner on fiddle. By the time he was 19 Gus was playing at Saturday night balls for $2.50 a night as well as working other odd jobs in the area. By 1901 Gus had gotten a job working for the rail road at Belzoni, near Greenville Mississippi. It was at this time that he formed his first jug band with Jim Guffin. In 1907 he went to work at a plantation near Ashport, Tennessee. Gus would spend his weekends in nearby Ripley, and it was here on a Sunday afternoon in that he met Noah Lewis. Noah was born on Glimpse Farm in Lauderdale county, outside Henning, Tennessee around 1890. Noah was a harp player, in fact he was known for being able to play two harps at once, one with his mouth and the other with his nose. He was also known as a heavy cocaine user. Noah introduced Gus to Ashley Thompson who played guitar and was only 13 at the time.

In 1910 Gus was married to Louis Brown's daughter. By 1914 Gus was playing the medicine show circuit under the name "Banjo Joe". Gus also made visits to Beale Street in Memphis which contained such establishments as "The Red Light", "The Blue Light", "The Hole In The Wall" and "The Monarch" also known as "The Castle of Missing Men". These places were notorious for prostitution, and the easy availability of moonshine, reefer and cocaine. Gus lived off and on in Memphis during the 1920s where he also met Hosea Woods and Elijah Avery.

The origins of jug bands can be traced to Louisville, Kentucky around the turn of the century. The early jug bands played a mixture of early jazz, country and pop that had its roots in ragtime. By 1910 there were several jug bands in Louisville, usually consisting of a jug, fiddle, banjo and sometimes a mandolin or guitar. One of the first jug bands to be recorded was Earl McDonalds Dixieland Jug Blowers in the early 1920s.

Back in Memphis, Will Shade (born 2/5/89 in Memphis) had started the Memphis Jug Band. They became very popular in Memphis, often playing in Church Park, where Gus saw them. The Memphis Jug Band first recorded for Victor in February 1927 and over the next four years recorded 57 sides. By 1930 there were seven different jug bands active in Memphis. The Memphis Jug Band had become so popular, and large, that they would split into two versions and play two different gigs on the same night.

In 1928 Ralph Peer from Victor, who had previously recorded the Memphis Jug Band, returned to Memphis looking for other jug bands to record. Charlie Williamson, the manager of the Palace Theatre, recommended Gus. By this time Gus had had a harness made for his jug so that he could wear it around his neck and play banjo at the same time. Gus called up Noah Lewis and Ashley Thompson and on Jan 30 1928 they recorded 4 sides in an old auditorium as "Cannon's Jug Stompers". Two of the songs "Minglewood Blues" and "Big Railroad Blues" featured Ashley on vocals, the others "Madison St Rag" and Springdale Blues" featured Gus. Minglewood was described as a small lumber camp or saw mill in Ashport, west of Ripley, that was a "good time spot".

These recordings did well and in Sept 1928 an additional 10 sides were cut; 4 on Sept 5 with Avery replacing Thompson, 2 more on Sept 9 and then 4 more on Sept 20 with Hosea Woods added on kazoo. Two takes of "Viola Lee Blues" were recorded during the Sept 20 session with Noah Lewis on Vocals. The second take included a completely different (from the version that Grateful Dead fans are used to) third verse. Cannon's Jug Stompers recorded a total of 26 sides between Jan 30, 1928 and Nov 28, 1930. In addition, Noah Lewis recorded 4 sides by himself (2 on Oct 2, 1929 and 2 on Nov 26, 1930) and 4 sides as the "Noah Lewis Jug Band" during Nov 1930. The Noah Lewis Jug Band included "Sleepy" John Estes on guitar and Yank Rachel on Mandolin. During the Nov 26 session they recorded New Minglewood Blues. It is this version that most resembles the verions performed by the Grateful Dead.

Recording History - Minglewood Blues

The original Minglewood Blues, credited to Noah Lewis, was recorded on January 30, 1928 in Memphis, Tennesse by Cannons Jug Stompers. The personnel were as follows.

This version is available on the CD "Cannon's Jug Stompers - The Complete Works 1927-1930", Yazoo 1082/3. This CD also contains Viola Lee Blues and Big Railroad Blues, also credited by Noah Lewis. It should be noted that, despite it's title, the CD version does not contain both takes of Viola Lee Blues, the LP version does.

New Minglewood Blues was recorded by the Noah Lewis Jug Band on November 26, 1930 in Memphis. This recording includes Noah on harmonica, John Estes on guitar, Yank Rachel on mandolin and an unknown jug player. This version is very similar to New New Minglewood Blues as played/recorded by the Dead.

The first version of the song recorded by the Dead was New New Minglewood Blues. The title suggests that the Dead were aware of at least New Minglewood Blues and possibly Minglewood Blues as well. Both songs were available in the early/mid 1960s on LP re-issues of the original 78s. This was around the time of the "Folk Music Revival" and many recordings of Jug Bands from the 1920s and 1930s were re-issued. The song was also recorded by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band around the time of the first Dead album, so they are another possible source for the song.

The Dead stopped playing New New Minglewood Blues in 1971. Then in 1976, after they returned from their self imposed touring break, they began playing All New Minglewood Blues, which they recorded in 1978 for Shakedown Street. Only the first verse remained from New New Minglewood Blues, the rest of the song being completely overhauled.

Recording History - Viola Lee Blues

Two versions of this song were recorded on September 20, 1928 in Memphis Tennesse. The personell were as follows.

The copyright credits the song (the second version) to Noah Lewis.

Viola Lee Blues (Take 1) by Noah Lewis

Viola Lee Blues (Take 2 /Copyrighted Version) by Noah Lewis
Copyright 1929, Peer Internationmal Publishing Co Inc
Copyright Renewed

Recording History - Big Railroad Blues

Recorded January 30, 1928, Memphis, Tennessee

Big Railroad Blues by Noah Lewis
Copyright 1929, Southern Music Publishing Co Inc
Copyright Renewed