Sixties Folk Icon Makes Rare Appearance
Jim Kweskin's Jug Band was positioned for stardom. Then he pulled the plug.
By Hal Gelb
East Bay Express - 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."