Orange juice cartons, cherry-cola bottles and a wine jug litter the tables in Arlo Leach’s attic music room. He’s neither a lush nor a hoarder: He’s a jugger.
According to Leach, there are dozens of other attics and basements like this in Portland. The Iowa-born Leach, whose flannel shirt and quiet manner make him more like a pre-electric Bob Dylan than a 39-year-old software engineer, says Portland is a hot spot for juggin’.
You’ll find them jamming at Northeast Alberta Street’s Anna Bannanas Cafe on the second Thursday of every month and at the Secret Society on Friday for Jugapalooza, which will feature six prominent jug bands in an old-fashioned jug-off.
I spent a recent Monday evening perched on a stool in Leach’s attic learning the spittle-covered craft.1. Blow like you mean it. Juggin’ ain’t just bottle blowing. Juggers blow directly through pursed lips into an empty jug to create a resonating bass vibration. The talented ones can produce a sound like the love child of a kazoo and trumpet. “Really, the jug is a substitute for a tuba,” Leach says. But I found the experience to involve lots of fartlike noises and sputtering. “As you practice, you’ll be able to relax and you’ll expand your range,” Leach says. My clenched-lip attempt was a good ab workout, producing noises pitched to call neighborhood dogs and sounding nothing like a tuba.
2. Juggin’ done been around a long while. “Some of the earliest recordings are of jug bands,” Leach says. He’s traced the style back to the first recorded juggin’ in 1925. Jug bands peaked in the 1930s, when black musicians along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers dressed in suits and ties to play washboards and banjos. Modern juggers still blow the same songs, but there has been one big change: Juggin’ was taken over by white players. Folkies in the ’60s revived jugging, riding the skiffle craze that even included the early Beatles. Today, Portland juggers include aspiring twentysomething sons of Mumford who insist on writing their own juggin’ songs (totally taboo) and aged flower children who play the classics.
3. Get dirty! Like a granddaddy of rap battles, jug tunes are notorious for double-entendres and innuendos, like limericks set to the banjo. As I jugged the baseline at my lesson, Leach sang: “I ain’t no farmer, ain’t no farmer’s son, but I’ll plow your field until the farmer come.” With all their talk of “bumble bees” (a male lover with a big stinger) and “fair-browns” (an attractive female lover) doing “bed-spring poker” (sexual intercourse), these juggalos give Weezy a run for his money.
GO: Juggers will be jamming at Anna Bannanas Cafe, 2403 NE Alberta St., on Thursday, March 14. 7-9 pm. Free. Jugapalooza is at the Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., on Friday, March 15. 9 pm. $8. 21+. jugapalooza.com.