Memphis is famous as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll and home of the Blues. But back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bluff City was also a hot spot for jug band and “primitive” blues music.
While visitors can readily hear the blues and songs made famous by Elvis Presley coming from inside the various clubs along Beale Street on any given night, The Side Street Steppers are one of the few Memphis-based bands keeping “vintage” style music alive that was once so popular with Jazz Age audiences in Memphis.
“The core songs that we do are from the 20s, 30s, and 40s,” said Christian Stanfield, who founded the Side Street Steppers. “It just feels very authentic to me. Even though these songs were made into commercial recordings, these are things that people played in their communities for themselves. This is before songs were polished to perfection. It was very raw and emotive. And I connect with that.”
Stanfield said before electric blues or rockabilly was developed in Memphis, the city was a recording hub for early blues that came up from the Mississippi Delta and primitive hillbilly style music from west Tennessee, the Missouri Bootheel, and Arkansas.
“It was a very profitable place for them to come and record music and play at events,” Stanfield said. “And the kind of music they played was roots blues music at its finest, often with just one guy and a guitar. Then you had the jug bands, these conglomerations of people who played on everything from store bought instruments to a comb covered in a piece of paper to make a kazoo, or a wash tub bass or any percussion materials they could find like wash boards. You had all this fascinating instrumentation.”
The bands became legendary. Cannon’s Jug Stompers. Jack Kelly & His South Memphis Jug Band.
Songs like “Lindyberg Hop,” “Elk River Blues,” “Fourth Street Mess Around,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and “Booty Bum Bum” may not be familiar to most audiences today, but played on the Victrolas in Depression-era homes all across America.
“People loved the jug bands,” Stanfield said. “They played outside on corners on Beale Street and in some of the saloons on Beale, and were particularly in demand for white audiences at fish fries and picnics. Boss Crump hired them for political rallies and fundraisers.”
Stanfield became exposed to this roots music through the old time dance community in Memphis and at live Americana events playing in bands consisting of a fiddle, banjo and acoustic guitar.
“There are a lot of people who are in to this retro vibe,” Stanfield said. “There is a revival and particular interest in these dance styles and these musical repertoires that started in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Andy Cohen, a Memphis Blues musician, helped him refine his playing technique, and that’s when Stanfield said he charged in to vintage music full speed.
He met his wife, Vera, in the dance community and together they formed the Side Street Steppers in 2008. Vera didn’t even play an instrument at the time. She learned to play the ukulele in the Jeep on a way to a show in Knoxville.
“I was bored of being a roadie,” Vera said. “I was tagging along with Christian the whole time to gigs. We would go to these dances and people would jam late into the night and would just sit there.”
In a normal year, the Side Street Steppers play 150 to 170 shows, mostly at festivals and venues in and around Memphis, but also travel to gigs in east Tennessee, up and down the Mississippi Delta, and across Arkansas, with occasional shows in Louisville, Kentucky and some near Oklahoma City.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut their gigs to just 55 appearances last year, and Stanfield expects to play about that many this year.
“It really changed things,” Stanfield said.
DeSoto County residents know the Side Street Steppers from their once a month appearances at Rancho Grande in Southaven and Olive Branch.
The band today consists of Stanfield and Vera, Benjamin Walsh on upright bass, Donald Miller III on guitar, and Katherine Whitfield on the wash board providing vocals and percussion.
An avid collector of old time vinyl records, Stanfield finds a lot of the songs the group plays. Although most of the songs are pre-war, Stanfield said they call their style of music “vintage” because it includes blues, jazz, country, hokum, jug band and fiddle tunes.
“Our repertoire has songs from many, many genres,” Stanfield said.
Vera describes what they play as “feel good” music.
“It’s good-time music, especially the jug band songs,” she said.
Miller, who studied jazz guitar at University of Memphis, was introduced to the band by the group’s upright bass player, Benjamin Walsh. He had never heard jug band music before.
“This is a very cool band,” Miller said. “It’s really fun to play that music.”
Although the band has seen members come and go over the years, Stanfield said they have never sounded better.
“There are other bands in this area where there is a slight overlap of repertoire,” Stanfield said. “But I would say the sound of The Side Street Steppers is unique to this band. Every time we add a new person to the band everybody adds something. All of us are very passionate about this and are well steeped in Memphis music. But these two guys here are so dialed in to what we do and make us sound so much better. We give our spin and I enjoy doing that.”