Jim Kweskin's Jug Band was positioned for stardom. Then he pulled the plug.
By Hal Gelb
February 27, 2008
There are waiters and waitresses, receptionists and Realtors, but for
an artist, Jim Kweskin has an unusual day job. He manages and is part
owner of Fort Hill Construction, a multi-million dollar outfit that
does, the singer-guitarist says by phone one workday morning from an
LA job site, "high-end building and renovation."
The construction gig is so much at the center of his life that the
one-time leader of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, the funky, infectious
'60s aggregation that Fresh Air rock historian Ed Ward places in
importance alongside the Beatles, Byrds, and Rolling Stones, rarely
performs or records. "I'm not trying to make a living at music," he
says, and adds, "It's a good feeling."
So when Kweskin takes the stage at the Freight & Salvage Friday
night, it will be something of a rare occasion. "I keep my finger in
the pie," he admits, "but not a tremendous amount."
The Jug Band, which first brought Maria Muldaur to national
attention, played Kweskin's typical repertoire, an eclectic mix of
almost entirely pre-'50s Americana: good-timey tunes, folk, blues,
pop, and early jazz. A pillar of the Harvard Square folkie scene that
spawned Joan Baez and then a national attraction Janis Joplin
opened for them when they played the Fillmore the Jug Band was
being positioned for pop stardom by Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman,
when Kweskin pulled the plug.
"Once I realized I had to play music for a living which meant all
the time it stopped being fun," he recalls. "There was too much
time away from home, too much repetition." He grew unhappy "playing
music with kazoos" and moved on to a few non-Jug Band albums,
including the deeply moving Jim Kweskin's America, before stopping
recording entirely in 1980.
Following Mel Lyman, the Jug Band's charismatic Santa Rosa-raised
banjo and harmonica player, into the commune Lyman was putting
together on Fort Hill in Boston's Roxbury ghetto pulled him further
away from a musical career. When asked to describe the community's
ethos, Kweskin simply says, "It's just a family, a bunch of people
who live together and share." That was the original attraction.
"Being together with a large family, with people who were inspiring
to me and who I grew to care about."
He even refers to Fort Hill Construction as his family's business.
"There was a bunch of rundown houses," he recalls, "and we moved in,
because at that time we were quite poor." Over the course of a couple
of years, the community bought the houses and learned how to fix them
up. "And after a while people said, 'Hey, you guys do pretty good
work. Why don't you work on my house?'"
Kweskin tends to use the word "community," not "commune" for Fort
Hill. "The next word after 'commune' could be 'cult,'" he notes.
That's a term Fort Hill has heard a lot. In the 1970s, a Rolling
Stone cover story pictured Fort Hill as an acid-fascist cult with a
megalomaniac Lyman as its Charlie Manson. Kweskin calls the article
"a chop job, full of falsehoods. They really tried to destroy us."
"Why would they do that?"
"To sell papers."
"Did the community change as a result?"
Yeah, he laughs. "We stopped giving interviews to newspapers."
More recent press accounts are cautious but laudatory, pointing to
Fort Hill as one of the few communal experiments to survive the '60s.
How'd they manage that? "Strong people. Committed. The personal
relationships. A lot of it had to do with who Mel Lyman was, helping
us getting this family going."
Articles point especially to the children raised in the commune.
They're described as responsible, studious, courteous adults. And to
Kweskin's delight, a number of them are into music. "I've taught
music to almost all the kids and some of them have grown up to be
quite good musicians. That's a very good feeling."
One of the "kids" is the remarkable singer Samoa Wilson, with whom he
recorded two recent albums, Now and Again and Live the Life on Blix
Street Records. Kweskin also has two forthcoming CDs, one featuring
his fingerpicking and another that captures a jug band extravaganza
at the Great American Music Hall where he jammed with John Sebastian,
David Grisman, and Geoff Muldaur. He's been gigging again with
Muldaur, the Jug Band's singer/guitarist, ever since they reunited at
a memorial for Fritz Richmond, the band's bassist and jug player
extraordinaire, in 2005.
All in all, Kweskin may play a dozen or two dates a year now. He
plays "when I feel inspired, when I have some music in me or
something that I want to play for people. Then I feel very alive onstage."