A Distinct Sound

Author Jones chronicles
Louisville’s jug music scene

His book gives a glimpse into early days of jug music

LA GRANGE, Ky. (August 2019) – It’s been branded as the happiest music on earth. Louisville hosts a national jubilee for it, and local author Michael L. Jones has written a definitive history of it. Since the early 19th century, jug music has pulsed through Louisville, creating a distinctive sound that is impossible to forget.
“In 1991, I was going through some import blues CDs at a Louisville record store, and I came across one titled, “Clifford Hayes and the Jug Bands of Louisville” from RST in Austria,” said Jones. “All the musicians were African American. This intrigued me because I’d always thought of jug music as white mountain music. I started doing research then and I wrote an article for LEO called ‘That Crazy Jug Band Sound.’ ”
Many consider jug music one of the first true American music forms, with roots in African and European music traditions. It combines African rhythms with European melodies as part of a longtime string band tradition dating back to the 19th century.
“I was raised by my grandparents, and they only listened to blues, jazz and gospel music. As I got older, I gravitated toward hip hop and punk rock, but I had this grounding in old music. So, when I heard jug music, I could recognize its relation to the music my grandparents listened to,” said Jones, who grew up in west Louisville.

Michael L. Jones

“Most jug bands are considered to be country blues, but Louisville jug bands were heavily influenced by New Orleans because of the riverboat traffic between the cities. Louisville groups are classified as proto-jazz or ragtime because they recorded a lot of instrumental and incorporated jazz instrument into their tunes.”
Jones, a freelance writer, dug deep into the genre, and soon many were commenting that he was the expert on jug band music. “That was when the Internet was becoming a thing, and people from all over started asking me questions about the bands. I decided to write a book but didn’t get too far until 2012 when the History Press called. They said, “We hear you’re the expert on jug bands.’ I became the expert from writing one article.”
Jones will present a program about his book, “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee,” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, at the Oldham County History Center in La Grange. The program is part of The History Press-Arcadia Author Dinner Series, which features local authors. It will be presented in the Rob Morris Educational Building at 207 W. Jefferson St. and include a light meal and cash bar.
“Fiddler Henry Miles once said if you have a symphony orchestra and they have a jug player then it’s a jug band,” Jones said. “Usually jugs are played in a string band setting. You will find banjos, mandolins, guitars and fiddles. There might also be a spoon player. On television they show the bands with washboards but that was not true of Louisville groups. For some reason, jugs and washboards always give their name to any ensemble they are a part of.”
There is nothing fancy about the instruments used to create this unique sound, which included kazoos and whiskey jugs. Traditional instruments used for this type of music in Africa included gourds, which were used as a ploy to disguise voices.
“Jug blowing in a southern thing. I traced the practice all the way back to Nigeria,” he said. Most Americans may not realize that the banjo originated in Africa. “The modern banjo is a descendant of the African lute the slaves brought with them.”
He said the jug blowing came in because Africans used a voice disguiser like horns in masks to disguise their voice during rituals. “If you are playing with spirits you don’t want them to be able to follow you home.”

He went on to say that the “European fiddle and the banjo went together naturally and you always find jug blowing in a setting with those two instruments. The reason jug blowing became a staple in Louisville was the bourbon industry.

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