Jug-band music isn't nearly as well known or clearly understood as, for instance, prewar blues. How would you describe it?
SEBASTIANWell, jug-band music was essentially African-American party music that preceded electricity. It contained elements of so many different types of music-that's one reason people have trouble describing it. Here will be something that's definitely ragtime, maybe being interpreted by a rough bluesy style. But then the next tune is more like hokum where the singer is making fun of himself, the tradition that sprang out of medicine-show music-which was racially derogatory in many cases.
A lot of this music was unsingable for young folksingers. My solution was, OK, let's take out the parts that we can't say. So I ended up rewriting tunes like "On the Road Again" and taking out the racial epithets. As modest as this was, it was the beginning of songwriting for me. One of the nice things about this material at the time-this is confession number 857-was that nobody knew it wasn't your tune.
Why did jug-band music become a foundation for '60s rock songwriting in bands like the Spoonful and the Grateful Dead?
SEBASTIAN I think it had a couple of things that musicians enjoy. It had antiquity, it had lack of familiarity, and it had an atmosphere of naughtiness and contrariness. So guys like Garcia and me were listening to the Harry Smith catalog and going, "What a cool thing about a gal who might slit you with a razor! Whoa-I don't know any girls like that!"
In the Spoonful you often played instruments like Autoharp and keyboards. Was your songwriting focused on guitar?
SEBASTIAN It was really focused on the guitar for many years, but I used keyboards, which I can't play to this day, as a way of defamiliarizing myself with my musical medium. We're all trying to do this in one way or another: shake yourself loose from the pattern that your fingers are used to following. That's how you come up with something that might have a unique quality. I think this is where this whole [alternate] tuning thing came out of-somehow making the guitar less familiar. Good things do come out of throwing yourself off the cliff one way or another.
The Autoharp totally came about because I had heard Mike Seeger on a Newport Folk Festival album with the New Lost City Ramblers, and I was trying to impress girls at summer camp.
Some interesting insights into "borrowing" a pre-existing style of music and making it your own and to "shaking" things up by writing with a different instrument or tuning...
Now go write songs and may the Muse be with you...