Sunday, May 13, 2018

Watching Out at the Grave of Will Shade

The original marker erected by 
Arlo Leach et al. - Photo: Bill Pichette 
Fare thee Will: 
Concert Raises Funds to 
Honor a Jug Band Legend

April 13, 2008 - By Rick Kogan

Most of the time, a concert is just a concert.

But occasionally a concert is a cause and that was the case recently when the Old Town School of Folk Music hosted a gathering of musicians to raise money to do right by a man named Will Shade.  Unless you are a musicologist or a devoted fan of the blues, that name likely means little or nothing to you. But Shade is regarded as one of the giants of the genre.

Born in 1898, he created the important-now legendary-Memphis Jug Band in 1927. He played guitar, harmonica and sang. He also wrote songs, among them "Stealin' Stealin'" and "On the Road Again." He and the band recorded a lot of tunes in the 1930s but the popularity of jug bands (loosely defined as bands using a mix of such traditional instruments as guitars, violins, banjos and mandolins, and such home-made instruments as jugs, spoons, washboards and kazoos) faded in the 1940s.

The front sign for Shelby County Cemetery in Memphis
Shade kept playing, kept forming new bands, but just as his music was beginning to attract attention from the generation of performers who would form such bands as the Grateful Dead, Lovin' Spoonful and Creedence Clearwater Revival, he died of pneumonia.Like so many musicians of his era and place, Shade died [broke]. He was buried in 1966 in an unmarked grave in a pauper's cemetery.

Arlo Leach, a teacher at the Old Town School, revered Shade. He started teaching guitar at the school and a couple of years later added jug band classes to his curriculum. He has also made it a kind of mission to find the graves of the jug band greats. He was understandably shocked to discover Shade's final resting place in the fall of 2005, and it was he who had the idea for the Old Town School concert. It featured a number of big-name jug bands, including Leach's own Hump Night Thumpers, all donating their talents. It was billed as the Will Shade Gravestone Benefit.

The marker broke in 2016 and the 
replacement was installed in May 2018. 
One of the Hump Night Thumpers is Sallie Gaines, a former Tribune colleague, who plays the jug and washboard.

"We work hard to learn the traditional jug band songs that musicians played in the river cities in the 1920s and 1930s," she says. "It is strange to see a bunch of urban white folks playing this old black music, but once you start you can't walk away."

The concert was a great success. More than 400 people showed up and enough money was raised to get a headstone and send Leach and some other musicians to Memphis this month. There they will mark Shade's grave and, you've got to believe, find some Memphis musicians with whom to have a jug band jam.

The second marker placed in honor of Will Shade in May 2018 in the Shelby County Cemetery.

Photo: Bill Pichette 2018
Photo: Bill Pichette 2018

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