Washtub bass in apartment

This project is completed! Will Shade now has a gravestone, and hopefully some new recognition as well. You can visit the Events page to learn about the gravestone project, or the Resources page to learn more about his life.

– Arlo Leach, project organizer

Arlo Leach writes: I recently had an opportunity to hear an interview with Will Shade, conducted by Donald Hill and David Mangurian on July 19, 1961. The audio recording is part of the Hill/Mangurian Collection, held by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and the following quotes are published with their permission.

Donald Hill and David Mangurian's interview with Will Shade is 13 minutes long. It begins with an impatient Shade giving a rapid series of one-word answers followed by "What else?" Then the tape stops and restarts, with Shade much more at ease, delivering a smooth monologue about his early life that lasts about five minutes. After that the interviewers ask about the origins of the Memphis Jug Band, with other clarifying questions along the way, and Shade answers cooperatively and at length.

Here are some points that clarify stories or answer questions I've heard about him and his band:

  • Shade gives his birth year as 1893, along with the comment, "Some people said I wasn't that old, but I am." I haven't seen his birth certificate, but his death certificate gives his birth year as 1898, and the 1920 census lists his age as 22. He says he married Jennie Mae Clayton in 1919, which matches his designation as Married on the 1920 census.
  • He mentions that he was the oldest of three siblings. The 1920 census confirms this, listing brothers Henry and Robert Banks, aged 16 and 9. Henry's birth year of 1904 would fit with his mother remarrying shortly after the death of his father in 1903.
  • As in the Dick Allen interview the previous year, Shade remembers that his father was a shoemaker, guitar player and guitar builder, and he talks a bit about the process of making handmade shoes around the turn of the century.
  • Shade says harmonica was his first instrument, then guitar. The first songs he learned on the guitar were "On the Road Again" and "John Henry." He says he learned to play blues later, after hanging around the "underworld people" at joints like Pee Wee's on Beale Street.
  • Shade gives some colorful descriptions of the Beale Street nightlife, drunkenness and crime. As for his participation, he says he was arrested but was "lucky enough to get out." He also says, "I never did use no dope. I drank a whole lot of whiskeys, like moonshine. I was the bootlegger's best friend."
  • He credits the "Dixie Jug Blowers" from Louisville with inspiring the Memphis Jug Band, but gives his band's start date as 1921 and his first recording date as 1922. This is probably a simple error, because the Louisville jug bands didn't record until November 1924, and not under the name "Dixieland Jug Blowers" until December 1926. He also remembered the Ballard and Ballard flour company, which started sponsoring Earl McDonald's group in 1929. Shade must have understood that the various names for the Earl McDonald / Clifford Hayes groups represented roughly the same group, so he could have been aware of them as early as 1924. If the interval of one year that he remembered between starting his own jug band and first recording was correct, that means he started his band in 1926, the year before its first recording session in February 1927.
  • Curiously, Shade says the Louisville bands were blowing an iron pipe instead of a jug, and says they also had a jug "with a wheel in it" to "revolve around" and "make the jug sound." He doesn't seem to be joking, and adds that he couldn't afford such a jug himself and bought a normal crockery jug. I can understand wanting to attribute Earl McDonald's impressive jug playing to some kind of mechanical assistance, but surely Shade knew better after playing with Jab Jones and other competent jug players over the years.
  • When asked about his washtub bass, Shade claims to have invented the concept after playing "telephone" with a string and a pair of baking powder cans. He says he liked the plunking sound that made, and decided to put the can on the ground, then added a pole to play it while standing and a stick to prop up the can and let more sound out. He learned to change notes and eventually practiced scales. He calls this a "streamline bass," and says with apparent seriousness that he wanted to patent the idea but didn't have anyone to help him file the patent application.
  • Shade takes pride in inspiring several imitators in Memphis, joking about the South Memphis Jug Band (an actual recorded group) as well as the North, East and West Memphis Jug Band. Then he says, "Finally they faded away. I'm still here, the Memphis Jug Band, the old standby."
  • He also proudly recalls recording for Victor, with Ralph S. Peer as his manager. He says the first recording session came about after he was walking down Beale Street playing "Memphis Jug Blues," and Charlie Williamson of the Palace Theater heard him and referred him to Peer. He remembers that the first recording session was at the McCall Building, an office building which stood at 75 Peabody Place.
  • As in other interviews, Shade remembers details of his recordings from more than 30 years earlier. In this interview, he easily lists the four titles recorded at his first session, although when discussing his second session in Chicago in June 1927, he mixes up those titles with titles from later sessions.
  • Shade mentions performing with Butterbeans and Susie in Gary, Indiana and Chicago before that 1927 session. This is the same trip that involved the infamous rattlesnake incident.
  • The interviewers ask Shade about the common blues verse, "I've got a new way of spelling the State of Tennessee / Double-e, double-r, double-e, double-n o g." Shade banters back and forth with them, asking how they would spell Tenneseee, and says he prefers his way: "Don't that sound like the state of Tennessee? What sounds the best, that or that?"
  • The interview ends with Jennie Mae inserting a bit of jive talk, "Hey, daddy-o. If you think I'm going out dancing on a dime, your clock is ticking on the wrong time," followed by Shade exclaiming, "Solid, jack!"