From tin cans to tunes: Workshop teaches 'jug band' tricks

From tin cans to tunes: Workshop teaches 'jug band' tricks

ASHLAND — Singing the plaintive blues tune "Going to Germany," Nathan James strums his guitar and stomps his foot on a pedal affixed to a tin coffee can, creating percussion each time it rises and falls.

"People think I have a drum machine down there," says James, the first half of the Nathan James and Ben Hernandez duo featured Friday night at the eighth annual Rogue Valley Blues Festival.

James once fashioned the rudimentary coffee can instrument to help enliven his guitar performances.

It was one of six instruments the pair played and discussed at one-hour workshop Friday about homemade instruments.

Like "Going to Germany" by Noah Lewis, much of the two-man band's music harks back to the jug bands of the 1920s.

Jug bands or skiffle bands, which date back to the time of slavery in the United States, employed inexpensive household items such as stoneware jugs to make music.

Nowadays, things such as jugs, washboards and washtubs add some flavor to traditional harmonica and guitar blues, said Hernandez, the main vocalist and harmonist.

Jackson County has its share of skiffle musicians, some who attended the workshop.

Tapping his foot to "My Backyard," an original blues song by the duo, Hernandez purses his lips and lets out a deep "bum, bump" into the mouth of a 2-gallon jug clutched in his hands. The sound reverberates through the bottle.

"People think you're blowing into it like a coke bottle, but you're not," Hernandez explains. "The jug just amplifies the sound and creates a hollow noise."

A kerosene or glass wine jug could also be used, he said.

Ashland musician Gayle Wilson already incorporates a washtub and harmonica in her performances, most frequently at Avalon Bar and Grill in Talent.

"I don't play the jug, but I will now," Wilson said after the workshop. "That will round out my music. He even told us how to play it." Another part of the duo's instrument arsenal is a pair of thick silver spoons bent at the neck of the handles.

"The thicker spoons have a little bit more of a resonant sound," Hernandez says.

He holds the handles parallel with his fingers, a space of less than half an inch between the face of each spoon, and then clatters them together like salad tongs.

"We add our own touches when we play covers," Hernandez said of playing versions of others' music. "We're not trying to sound like a 1928 record. That's been done before. We try to add our stamp."

The stamp can sometimes come from the creativity put into fashioning a homemade instrument.

"I've listened to jug bands, but I've never watched one," said Ashland resident Nancy Spencer, who plays a saw with a bow in performances with her daughter, Lisa Spencer, a guitarist. "Just watching them do it was amazing."

The festival continues Sunday at locations throughout Ashland and Talent.

Turnout at the event has been about 25 percent greater than last year, said festival organizer Ariella St. Clair. About 300 people purchased tickets for Friday events, and more were expected to attend Saturday, St. Clair said.

Tickets are $20 for each workshop, $10 for the 6 p.m. show at the Historic Ashland Armory. Performances are free from noon to 3 p.m. at Avalon Bar and Grill in Talent and Alex's and Standing Stone restaurants in Ashland.

For details, visit or call 541-535-3562.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or at

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