Thinking of Bo Conrad and his legendary Spit Band

I’m sitting here listening to the Bo Conrad Spit Band’s first album on a turntable with a belt held together with duct tape. It makes the songs lurch a little, but it seems appropriate. The Spit Band thrived in the era before autotuning and drum machines. They sometimes imitated the sounds of an earlier era, and they didn’t apologize for the occasional bad note.

Which is not to say they weren’t serious. But I guess, come to think of it, they weren’t. When the kazoo is the centerpiece of your band, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.

I put the record on today because I heard a few days ago through Facebook that Bo, who lives near Cambridge, Minnesota, had suffered a stroke and is in the hospital.

A little background: The Bo Conrad Spit Band was a jug band that played around the upper Midwest from about 1970-75. They played coffeehouses and college campuses and churches, and they opened for some national acts like Earl Scruggs.

Harold “Bo” Conrad grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and his other claim to fame is that he won the 1963 national soap box derby. (See this Moore on Sunday episode to learn all about it.)

The members met at Bethel College (now University, for some reason) where my dad was a professor, so we had two of their three albums. I was a kid of 7 in 1970, but hearing their records — and hearing them play in my living room — made me ask for a ukulele for my birthday, which turned into a lifelong music habit. One of the first songs I learned was “Ain’t She Sweet,” because I had heard it on their record.

The membership shifted over the years, but the original group included Conrad on guitar, kazoo, vocals, and washboard (members often traded instruments between songs), Mark “Stewy” Steward on piano, Dave Frykman on gutbucket, Steve Duininck on vocals and guitar, Bill Moline on guitar and chain, Larry Ostrom on spoons and jew’s harp, Donovan Kramer on violin, Dean Lindberg on kazoo, suitcase, trombone, and 1920s-style vocals on a few songs. Not to be left out was manager Maurice Zaffke who was the brains behind the business of the spit band.

Between the first and second albums they lost vocalist/guitarist Bob Vork in a car accident and gained harmonica player Jack Parker.

By the third album the band was down to six members: Bo, Jake, Dean, Fryk, Stewy, and Lee Johnson, who now plays in a one-man band around the Duluth area as “Colorblind” Johnson.

As for the name, the notes on their first two albums explain it in graphic detail: “The term ‘spit’ in our name refers to that rare occasion when a hardcore kazooist moves out on an extended improvisation and saliva begins dripping from his kazoo.”

The band’s sound changed from song to song but was usually built on the foundation of Stewy’s accomplished piano, joined by rhythm guitar, gutbucket, and usually a washboard or spoons, with a kazoo or harmonic solo filling instrumental breaks.

Their songs were a combination of old covers of jug band material, contemporary folk/rock and country music, and originals. In the first category were standards like Jug Band Music, The Blues My Naughty Sweety Gives to Me, Leave a Light, Ain’t She Sweet, Sadie Green Vamp of New Orleans, Coney Island Washboard. In the second, Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “The Weight” by The Band, “I’ll Paint Rainbows all over your Blues” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “That’s Enough” by Johnny Cash, and “Darlin’ If” by Spirit.

The also wrote songs that were all over the map, ranging from the silly to the serious. On the silly side, “Snowflake” tells a story of lost love, “Senile” imagines the Spit Band playing when they’re in the nursing home, and “Scrape the Label Off the Bottle (and Pretend You’re Drinking Beer)” captures a dilemma well known to Baptists of the 1970s. “In Debt” and “Got No Money” are light fare on themes familiar to college boys, but they soar due to their melodies and some of the best harmonica solos you’ll hear anywhere.

The humorous, up-tempo songs made the band a hit with live audiences, along with their stage banter, unique instruments, and infectious energy. But they were more than just revivalists capitalizing on a national trend.

Their best songs have melodies and lyrics that hark back to the jug band era with timeless lyrics and unusual chord progressions and melodies.

The songwriting on the second album makes it my favorite. As opposed to the first album, which includes nine covers and three originals, the second has seven originals and six covers. The third has only three originals, and none as good as those on the second album.

In particular, “In the Morning,” “Empty Mailbox,” “I’m Lonely Baby,” and “Bo’s Blues” sound like they could’ve been written 100 years ago — and like they could be sung 100 years from now.

On “I’m Lonely Baby,” for example, Conrad uses a technique rarely seen since the Tin Pan Alley days — an intro (originally called a “verse”) with a different structure and melody than the main part of the song:

It begins:

Got this piece of paper and a pencil in my hand,

Don’t think I can express my heart, but then again, who can?
Discover through the ages, the limits of a note,

But I had to tell her anyway, so this is what I wrote …

And with three piano notes, the song picks up tempo and changes melody:

I’m lonely baby, you know it’s true

I’ve been so down-and-out since I’ve been away from you

I hope you come home in just a little while

Cause I’m lonely baby, lonely for your love and for your smile

I love you, baby, the words aren’t new

But I have never said these three big words to you.

I lie awake at night and count the ceiling tiles,

Cause I’m lonely baby, lonely for another smile.

Two minutes and 11 seconds of timeless Americana. The fact that Bo and Stewy and the rest of the band were in their early 20s when they wrote songs like that tells you what students they were of great American music — not just jug bands, but Irving Berlin and Hoagy Charmichael.

A little personal history with the Band:

The aforementioned living room concert is something I have only a vague memory of, but Bo explained the context when I met him personally for the first time in 2013. Apparently, the band was getting grief from the Bethel administration, who feared that their playing of gospel music in a jug band style was insincere at best and blasphemous at worst. My dad, who always sided with rebels and troublemakers, invited them over as a show of support and to give them inside information on the controversy.

A few years later, my friends and I sang some Spit Band songs (In the Morning, Senile, Snowflake) in our junior high talent show at church. We learned to harmonize more from the Spit Band than we ever had from the hymns we sang on Sunday mornings.

Around that time, Mark Steward started working with my mom, and he had married one of my dad’s teaching assistants, so they became friends of the family. The Spit Band had broken up, but Mark and Bo were turning some of the songs into a musical, which unfortunately never made it to Broadway, or off Broadway, or even Minneapolis. It was a great story revolving around “The Silver Kazoo.” As I recall, it told the tale of a small-town kazoo player moving to the Big City to pursue a career in a jug band.

I carried my two Spit Band records with me throughout life, and eventually added the third, which I found in a thrift store in northern Minnesota. I occasionally got updates from Stewy, and I met Larry Ostrom once or twice when he was working with friends.

When MySpace came out I created a page for my music and listed among my influences the Bo Conrad Spit Band. I heard from Bo’s daughter, who informed me that Bo lived about 30 miles away from me, but I didn’t make the effort to meet him until last year, when I went to his house and played some tunes.

The highlight was when he taught me to play “Bo’s Blues,” which was always my favorite, but which has an unusual chord progression (F, A, G7, Dm) that I couldn’t figure out. Bo told me it was the first song he ever wrote, which was hard to believe considered how perfect it is. We played that and a few other songs together and have stayed in touch via Facebook since then (where Bo invests his time and energy and great sense of humor today).

I’ve had thoughts of getting Bo and the remaining band members out for a show in the Twin Cities, or getting their original albums onto iTunes, but I haven’t made the effort.

When I heard that Bo was in the hospital, and read all the kind words on the Bo Conrad Spit Band fan page, I felt like writing, just to express one fan’s lifelong fascination with Bo and his Spit Band, and how much their music has meant to me over the years.

I’m hoping for the best for Bo and his family. Here’s a nice tribute video someone posted on Facebook of a song Bo wrote when he was waiting for his daughter’s birth.

If I got any of the facts wrong (as Bo might say, then they wouldn’t be facts, would they?) please let me know and I’ll update this. If you have more to add about the Spit Band and Bo, please comment or send an email.

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One thought on “Thinking of Bo Conrad and his legendary Spit Band

  1. How is Bo?
    I attended Bethel in 1970.
    I knew and loved them all. All the Spit Banders.
    Several months ago after receiving a new turn table
    I dug out my box of LP’s and rediscovered Bo et all.
    A treat indeed. Memorializing a most favorite year
    of my life. Thank you.

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