Sometimes one can become an authority on a subject without even really trying. Local author Michael L. Jones is one of those people.
More than a decade and a half ago, Jones wrote an article about jug band music and its origins in Louisville. The story made the rounds, and a version of Jones’ story was later published in his 2006 anthology, “Second-Hand Stories.” As the years went by, he found that the book kept selling largely because of that one article. People from around the globe who were interested in jug lore began contacting him randomly.
Finally, a few years ago, he decided it might be time to utilize his knowledge and status as de facto jug historian to write a book. After some fits and starts, that book is now a reality. “Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee” will be officially released on Sept. 23 and will be available in advance this weekend at the annual Jug Band Jubilee, where Jones will sell and sign his new tome.
Jug music, which originated in the early 1900s, is actually considered one of the first true American music forms, with roots in African and European music traditions. And while it started as a curiosity for Jones, it became a full-blown fascination.
“Even Europeans recognized it as something new and interesting and uniquely American,” Jones tells Insider Louisville. It usually is misinterpreted as being a form of bluegrass, however, because of the use of banjo.
“I get all the time, ‘Why are you interested in jug music,’” he says, “because people think it’s a mountain thing. It’s too hillbilly for blues and jazz historians and too urban for country people.”
Jones laughs. “I call it a secret history of rock ’n’ roll.”
Interestingly, when his original article was reprinted in the mid-2000s, the momentum really began. He befriended Rod Wenz and Steve Drury (aka Mr. Gil Fish of the Juggernaut Jug Band), both who were closely associated with the Jubilee, and talk began of creating a book. Unfortunately, both Wenz and Drury died in the late 2000s, and then Jones himself experienced health problems in 2011. All of these factors kept pushing the project back.
But eventually he was approached by South Carolina-based publisher The History Press — yes, even the publishing industry knew Jones was the go-to guy for jug music — and that’s what finally pressed him into action.
The book is a 28,000-word narrative about African-American and musical culture, as well as river life. Yes, it’s a book about people who made music with rudimentary instruments such as washboards and jugs, but it is also a peek into Louisville’s social climate in the early 1900s.
In addition, there are a few twists behind the scenes. For instance, Jones, who didn’t know much about jug music until befriending Wild and Woolly Video owner (and former Slint bassist) Todd Brashear, reveals it was friends of Brashear in Europe who helped turn him onto a vast wealth of jug band history that had been written but never published decades ago by a now-deceased Indianapolis lawyer named Fred Cox.
Also, he would learn too late that he had for years been friends with the daughter of jug band great McDonald, who never talked about her father’s music. In fact, he learned this from the late Louis Coleman, a Louisville social activist who told Jones that all he knew was that his longtime friend Matty Mathis’ father was a jazz musician who “blew in a jug.”
“There have been lots of crazy coincidences that have kept me moving forward with the project when I’ve lost interest,” Jones says. “One time I was at the U of L photo archives looking for something else and I decided to see what they had about jug music. The only thing they had was a folder, and it had three items in it. Two of them were my articles. The other one was hand written notes by Fred Cox himself about references to jug music.”
So, Jones is the jug band authority through years of work, plenty of research and a lot of interesting circumstance. It’s quite frankly one of the reasons why the book is so interesting. It was almost as if the story was demanding to be written. Jug band music is a complete unknown to so many people, and yet the tradition is so deep.
“Most people don’t even know the banjo is an African instrument,” Jones says. “The whole string band tradition has been totally lost.”
But jug music was also very much a cultural thing — African-Americans performing on the street as a way to make money during difficult times. And it wasn’t just in Louisville; these are people who were traveling up and down the Ohio and the Mississippi on riverboats as well. Jazz music and jug music are cousins of a sort.
“Another thing that will surprise people is that everybody thinks there is a straight history that blues came from Mississippi and jazz came from New Orleans,” Jones says. “But people from Louisville on the riverboats were constantly going to New Orleans. We had jazz bands here at the same time they had them in New Orleans.”
The interest in jug music around the world, because of these fascinating roots, is actually more intense than it is here in Louisville, and that’s how Jones inadvertently became the world’s foremost jug band authority.
“It was just like the indie rock scene now,” Jones says when describing what the jug music scene was like in Louisville in the early part of the 20th century. “Then, there were people that would come in from out of town for Derby (to play). Jug playing was a commonplace thing. It’s part of tradition.”
In addition to the Jug Band Jubilee this Saturday at Waterfront Park, Jones will also do book signings at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Oct. 26,, at Little Loomhouse Nov. 1 and Karen’s Book Barn in La Grange on Nov. 7.