BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE FALL 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Cool and quirky, Eden & John’s East River String Band is dedicated to mining musical gold from the early 20th century. Led by the married couple of guitarist extraordinaire John Heneghan and singer/ukulelist Eden Brower, but also including in their ranks the great underground “comix” artist and musician Robert Crumb (mandolin, ukulele, tiple), the New York-based ESRB resuscitates obscure old blues, early country, jug band, and the occasional pop tune, most culled from the Heneghan’s and Crumb’s massive collections of rare 78s. The loose, ramshackle, all-acoustic band, which often expands to incorporate other players on a variety of instruments, both on record and live, isn’t interested in reproducing the original records exactly, but rather capturing the spirit and emotion of these largely forgotten songs to expose them to new generations of listeners.
Over the course of seven full-length albums, six of them featuring cover artwork by the esteemed “R. Crumb” (as he signs his art), the ESRB has covered dozens of tunes that range from fairly well-known blues classics such as “Poor Boy Long Way from Home,” “Nobody’s Business If I Do,” “Big Road Blues,” and “How Long” to forgotten gems such as the 1929 Texas Night Hawks tune “Possum Rag,” Pearl Dickson’s 1927 song “Twelve Pound Daddy,” Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole” from 1924, and Pigmeat Pete & Catjuice Charlie’s 1929 side “On Our Turpentine Farm.”
Their latest album, Goodbye Cruel World, recorded live at Crumb’s house in a small village in the south of France (where he moved in 1991) and in a studio in Brooklyn, continues along similar lines, presenting a few widely heard tunes, like the Memphis Jug Band’s “Lindberg Hop” and “You May Leave but This Will Bring You Back,” and the much-covered “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” but also plenty of way-deep 78 cuts, such as the Shelor Family’s “Big Bend Gal” (1927), the Isham James Orchestra’s “Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home” (1926), and the Scottsdale String Band’s “Come Be My Rainbow.” And also—what’s this?—a clever, of-the-moment ERSB original co-written by Heneghan and Crumb called “The Pandemic Is On.”
Ukulele appears on 9 of the 13 tracks (played by Brower or Crumb, and on “Pandemic,” both), and when the group performs live, Brower’s shiny National resonator uke is frequently out front. To find out more about Eden Brower, her love of the uke, the group, and how the ukulele fits into their new old sound, we did an email interview in late spring.
I gather that you and John met working at the Forbidden Planet comics store in New York City. What sort of musical background did you have before you two hooked up? Did you play an instrument growing up in Queens?
John was actually my boss at Forbidden Planet in the late ’90’s. We bonded over underground comics a lot before music came into the picture. Growing up in Queens I already had an obsession with music at the age of 9 and taught myself some hippie songs I loved [on guitar] just for fun. I think I had a Beatles songbook, along with a Cat Stevens one, and also Donovan. It’s kind of funny, as everyone else my age was listening to Boy George and top ten radio. I liked old music only; ’50’s and ’60’s.
Were you already hip to the 78s/collector world before you got together with John? Who are some of the musicians and singers John turned you on to who first struck a chord with you, so to speak?
Not at all! I went from going on Grateful Dead tour to punk rock, which I still love, and knew nothing about old-time stuff. But I always sang around the house. John was playing some Memphis Minnie and I sang along and he said I sounded good. This is my first band, and the only band I have ever been in, so I was like, “No way am I getting up on a stage and singing!” Then he bought me the CD The Roots of Rap [a compilation of music from the ’20s and ’30s] kind of as a joke, because I also listened to a lot of hip-hop, and it had some great old songs on it and I became addicted to old music. I was very nervous about singing it, so I started out slow. First I sang background stuff, then I sang lead, and then John was like, “Look, here is this cool uke! You should learn to play it!” I said, “No way!” and then a month later fell in love with the ukulele, too.
Out here in the S.F. Bay Area, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders were kind of a niche big deal with a decent following dating back to the mid-’70s, mostly playing music from the ’20s and ’30s. How much did that group influence the course you and John took with what became the ERSB?
John is a huge fan of [CSS members] Crumb, [Robert] Armstrong, and [Al] Dodge, and he had all their records, so I first heard about them from him. Our band has our own approach: just a loose, basic string band people can sit in with easily and just have fun. So I guess I would say we are not too influenced by them but are huge fans.
How did the resonator become your uke of choice? Of course, Bob Brozman of the Serenaders was one of the all-time great resonator guitarists, and also played some ukulele.
Well, John plays guitar and he had a National Style O at the time, so he bought me one to kind of match. But it also sounds great, and I was a beginner and it was easy to learn on and it was fun. I am spoiled with that National uke and it is hard to play any other.
Do you own others?
I actually just have the one National Style O soprano! When in France, I sometimes will play Crumb’s wooden ukes.
Can you talk a little about how the ukulele fits musically with the ERSB’s kind of music? John’s guitar is often the most prominent color in the group’s sound, with the ukes more in rhythmic support and harmony roles. Sometimes the uke’s higher register and the strums employed have an almost mandolin-like quality.
Yes, my role is mainly to pound out the rhythm so John can do his thing, and the higher register, especially out of the National, really cuts through the music. I also play some of the melody for the same reason. I will double Crumb’s mandolin melodies and it all melds together pretty well!
Historically, the ukulele did not have a huge role in the music of the ’20s –’40s, even though commercially it enjoyed a tremendous boom, as so many amateur musicians took up the instrument. There were a few pop and “novelty” performers, like George Formby in England and Roy Smeck and Ukulele Ike in the U.S., who enjoyed widespread success. In the bluesier realm, there were obscure African American players such as Rabbit Muse, Lemon Nash, and Little Laura Dukes. Since you and John obviously know that world much better than I, are there other ukulele players from that era you think the world should hear and know about?
I really love the simple ukulele self-accompaniment of Elizabeth Smith. Her recording of “No Sooner” for Victor in 1926 is wonderful. Of course, I love players like Joe Linthecome. John used to play the 78 he recorded under the name Red Onion Joe called “Humming Blues” . I’m also influenced by country string bands that have ukulele in them that are just pounding out that rhythm, like Al Treadway, who played in Jimmy Yates’ Boll Weevils and the Red Mountain Trio. Another great player in the Cliff Edwards vein is the lesser-known Art Fowler, who accompanied himself singing and was also a great soloist. Check out his  version of “No Wonder She’s a Blushing Bride”!
Can you answer a couple of questions about the publicity-shy Crumb? Do you know when he started playing the uke? Can you tell me what ukes he owns/plays?
Crumb has probably been playing the uke since his 20s. He plays tenor and baritone. They are old wooden ukes. One is a Vega Arthur Godfrey deluxe model. The tenor is some old no-name no-frills wooden model probably made by Regal.
What sort of considerations go into an arrangement that involves guitar, uke, and mandolin on the same track?
We are a very loose band. We pick out a song we like and make sure we have the same changes. Crumb, who plays by ear, is constantly correcting our wrong chords! But we don’t really discuss arrangements; we just play together and however it comes out, that is how it is!
I love “The Pandemic Is On.” It’s definitely one of the best songs I’ve heard that deals with the insanity of the past couple of years. And, of course, it features two ukuleles! Can you tell me about how John and Crumb came to write it?
John suggested we do an updated version of the Hezekiah Jenkins masterpiece about the Great Depression, “The Panic Is On,” but make it about the Pandemic. Crumb loved the idea and they both started writing the lyrics. That took about a day. But when they compared their work, John thought Crumb’s lyrics were way better, so about 90 percent of them are Crumb’s.
How did the pandemic affect the recording of Goodbye Cruel World, if at all?
Well, we were still able to go to France with our harmonica player, Ernesto Gomez, so it really didn’t affect it at all, despite all the regulations and craziness like all the restaurants shutting down while we were there.
What makes it “album time” when you and John decide to record? There must be a million tunes as possibilities each time out.
We try to never stop recording new songs. All four of us pick out tunes we like and make suggestions, and we rarely don’t do someone’s suggestion, as we are all on the same page about most things. Crumb picks pop tunes, whereas I go for female blues singers. John usually picks country and blues, and Ernesto loves old jug band music.
There’s been a wide variety of folks who have played and recorded with you through the years. Whom do you consider to be the current lineup?
The core group is me, John, Crumb and Ernesto. Eli Smith and the guys from the Downhill Strugglers play with us when the planets align. Although we don’t play with our pal Dom Flemons anymore, because he is not local, we have many fond memories of jamming with him.
What are your plans for you and the group for the rest of the year?
We’ll be heading to France in December or January to record and play gigs with Crumb. Aline [Kominsky, Crumb’s wife] runs the Crumb Galerie—it’s a huge, great space to play and we just walk over and play and people come from all over to see Robert.
And we will just keep learning new tunes and moving forward while we have lots of fun with this music that we all love so much.