Chasin' Gus' Ghost
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Itís not that Todd Kwaitís film Chasiní Gusí Ghost is lacking in organization. In fact, when it is examined in hindsight, its narrative takes a rather logical path to its destination. Nevertheless, as it progresses, the documentary embraces its charming, laid-back ambience. Like water that flows from tributary to river to ocean, it is content simply with following the story wherever it will lead. The twists and turns are sometimes surprising, and of course, much as its title suggests, around every bend, the influence of Gus Cannonís Jug Stompers seems to be waiting to pounce.
Chasiní Gusí Ghost begins in a rather inauspicious fashion as Kwait details the genesis of the quest, which began with the obsession with the Loviní Spoonful that he obtained during his college years. His fascination with the band serves as the impetus for his personal journey, and initially, his discoveries alone are what drive the film. He connects the Loviní Spoonful to Cannonís Jug Stompers via a clip of John Sebastianís performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and with Taj Mahal lending a reflective voice to the band leader, Kwait highlights Cannonís life and career. With this approach, his tale succeeds in striking only a tenuous balance, and in its early stages, it appears as if at any moment the film will begin to meander and ultimately fail to find a deeper meaning.
Over the course of Chasiní Gusí Ghost, Kwait pieces together insightful commentary from Bob Weir and Charlie Musselwhite as well as Erik Darling, whose outfit The Rooftop Singers singlehandedly succeeded in elevating Cannon out of obscurity in the early 1960s when its remake of Walk Right In became a national hit. In the process, Kwait travels to Memphis and Louisville, both of which were hotbeds of jug band music during the 1920s. He searches for personal recollections about harmonica player Noah Lewis, a principal member of the Jug Stompers, as well as renowned guitarist "Sleepy" John Estes, who had performed in Lewisí own ensemble. Kwaitís journey also carries him to Sweden, where talks with Bengt Olsson, a longtime chronicler of the jug band scene, as well as to Japan, where the genre bafflingly has become immensely popular.
Of course, no story about Gus Cannon would be complete without an examination of the work of the Kweskin Jug Band, an outfit that featured Geoff and Maria Muldaur as well as Fritz Richmond, an extraordinary jug and washtub bass player. The groupís reverence for old-time music combined with its free-spirited, fun-filled performances quickly earned the ensemble a sturdy reputation. The Kweskin Jug Bandís importance in revitalizing the folk music scene is undeniable, and it played a huge role in influencing the pre-Grateful Dead collective Mother McCreeís Uptown Jug Champions as well as the Loviní Spoonful.
During the making of Chasiní Gusí Ghost, Richmond died of lung cancer, and his passing serves to give the film its emotional center. Just as the originators of jug band music were beginning to expire, the folk revivalists of the 1960s reanimated interest in the genre. Nearly 45 years later, they too are growing old and gray. It is Kwaitís hope, then, that he can plant the seeds for another musical revolution. By the time that he reaches the end of his journey, he not only has succeeded in paying tribute to both Cannon and Richmond, but he also has made an intriguing discovery in the recent work of Sankova Strings. Through interviews with and performances by the members of the African-American ensemble, he brings his story full circle, thus drawing a line that binds jug band music to its jazz and blues roots as well as to its modern day incarnations of rap and hip-hop. Although it isnít always immediately recognizable, the specter of Gus Cannon still hovers and haunts, and with Chasiní Gusí Ghost, Kwait beautifully captures the image on film for all posterity. Ĺ
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box