The stories, tunes and escapades of two Adirondack jug bands
Recently, a historian friend known for sleuthing regional nuggets found the album Old Time and Jugband Music by a group called Cranberry Lake. She sent it to me with a note that said, “I think you need this LP.”
The 42-year-old vinyl was in mint condition. Red paint was splattered on the jacket, but hadn’t compromised the hand-drawn cover or, on back, a black-and-white photograph of the band. In goofy poses, six smiling musicians, a jug near their feet, hold their respective instruments—fiddle, mandolin, washtub bass, kazoo, guitar, washboard. Beside the photo it says that “Cranberry Lake first got together in the summer of 1972 at a college biological station at Cranberry Lake in the Adirondack mountains.… We try hard to know where the music comes from and feel like we’re a real part of where it’s going.”
This record was an extraordinary gift. I appreciate traditional music, anything “Adirondack” intrigues me, plus I’m married to a man who, long ago, played in an Adirondack jug band.
On a portable record player, Cranberry’s version of “Moving Day,” a Tin Pan Alley–era string band tune, filled the former church sanctuary in Jay where we make Adirondack Life. The other editors and I listened to “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Frosty Morn” and “Washboard Wiggles.” We loved it all.
So I tracked down Lew Cutler, who, with his wife, Sally, were founding Cranberry members. In ’72 Lew was a student at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), in Syracuse, working on a master’s degree in forest ecology. He’d brought his banjo to Cranberry Lake; Sally had her kazoo. It didn’t take long for them to meet up with other student-musicians Rich Sobel, Terry Finger and Brian Burns. After a day in the field collecting plants or, in Burns’s case, studying ectoparasites on rodents, they’d play music. A year later, the band, then Syracuse-based, added guitarist Harvey Nusbaum and fiddler Henry Jankiewicz. They performed at coffeehouses, bars and square dances. At the ESF dances, says Lew, “It wasn’t a party until someone broke a leg.”
Cranberry Lake became regulars at Thendara House, a rowdy bar near Old Forge. Jankiewicz remembers the resident dog, Moose, who slept in front of the speakers, and the night a biker threatened to kill the band if they didn’t play “Orange Blossom Special.”
The band’s third and final record included “Einstein the Genius,” a song by Jankiewicz that got lots of attention. Cranberry performed their hit on National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. That was “the experience of a lifetime,” says Harvey Nusbaum, and we had “all sorts of adventures.”
Talking to those guys reminded me of the years my husband was in the South Catherine Street Jug Band (SCSJB). Those, too, were wild times. When I knew the band in the early 2000s they had just moved from Harkness to a farmhouse between Au Sable Forks and Jay. The SCSJB—named for the street in Plattsburgh where the original members, all SUNY Plattsburgh students, lived—had started jamming in 1995 with a mishmash of instruments, including banjo, saxophone and washboard. Through the years, as they dedicated themselves to music full-time, their sound grew more rootsy rock—the banjo disappeared and a scrubboard appeared only occasionally. In their school bus, painted with an American flag and outfitted with card table and bunks, the guys rolled across the Northeast, performing at festivals, bars and other venues.
The SCSJB played original tunes, some influenced by their surroundings (“Cedar River Flow” is one of my favorites), and their vibe was overwhelmingly positive. I recall, during a gig at The Knitting Factory, in New York City, someone in the crowd saying, “Man, those guys are happy.” And for an entire summer the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery—back when I worked there—played the SCSJB’s CD Road Less Traveled on a constant loop. (I swear I had nothing to do with that.)
There were dedicated SCSJB followers, on-stage and on-the-road shenanigans, and crazy parties. At an album-release gathering at the band’s house—with a visit from police for noise complaints—strobing emerald Northern Lights capped the celebration (yes, it really was aurora borealis), followed by an early-morning earthquake that shook us from our beds and crumbled a chunk of nearby Route 9N. Somewhere in there, someone got engaged and a fan stole a car.
These are just a few of my memories, but the band’s—and Cranberry’s—are likely infinite, accrued from living, creating and playing so intimately together. The SCSJB split in 2003, almost two decades after Cranberry went their separate ways. But the music lives on.
We’ve all got an Adirondack soundtrack. These days mine is the Ausable River, evening peepers and the sporadic tapping of a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Often, though, a thread of a song from the jug band breaks through, bringing me back.