Never listened to a jug band? Bet you didn’t know that Louisville is the world center for jug band music. While bluegrass and country music are more commonly associated with Kentucky, another genre with deep roots in the state is jug band music. Many music historians cite Louisville, where jugs abounded due to the city’s bourbon distilling industry, as the birthplace of this light-hearted musical form that spread up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers around the turn of the 20th century.
The music has come full circle, with the seventh annual National Jug Band Jubilee in Louisville set to celebrate the genre’s origins on Sept. 15, 2012. Nine of the country’s best bands will play from 1-11 p.m. at the free festival at the Brown-Forman Amphitheater in Waterfront Park, on the banks of the Ohio River near downtown Louisville. The acts will include Louisville’s Juggernaut Jug Band and groups from Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Washington and other states.
The festival also includes free workshops where you can learn to play a jug, washboard, kazoo or even a saw. This family-friendly event also offers instrument-building workshops for children, and food and drinks will be sold.
About 3,000 people attended last year’s event, said Heather Leoncini, president of the jubilee’s steering committee. The event is staged yearly with a combination of public and private support.
Jug band music is played on a combination of instruments, both makeshift (whiskey jugs, washboards, washtub basins and kazoos) and traditional (fiddles, banjos and guitars). Originated by African-American street performers, jug band music gradually made its way from the streets of Louisville, Memphis and New Orleans to entertain upscale crowds at venues as varied as Churchill Downs, river-travelling steamboats and music halls and theaters as far away as Chicago, New York and Europe.
Eventually, some of the top jug bands, such as the legendary Louisville Jug Band led by well-known performer Earl McDonald, made recordings that proliferated until the Great Depression of the 1930s and the negative impact of radio brought the original jug band era to a close. The sound influenced pioneers of blues music such as W.C. Handy of Henderson, Ky. and Jimmy Rogers.
The infectious rhythms and homespun tunes of the original jug bands were resurrected in the 1960s by artists like Jim Kweskin, the Grateful Dead and others. Today, the music is popular in Europe, Australia and even Asia, where Japan’s Old Southern Jug Blowers have recorded CDs memorializing the 1920s recordings of Earl McDonald.