Historical Marker 2291, located in Louisville, Kentucky (Jefferson County), commemorates the vibrant life and legacy of Earl McDonald.
Earl McDonald was born on October 2, 1885, in South Carolina. His mother and grandmother worked as servants for a white man named McDonald, who had formerly kept them enslaved on his plantation, and retained them as paid employees after Emancipation. In 1887, the group moved to Louisville, as Mr. McDonald chased business opportunities in the city’s growing commercial district.
McDonald did not grow up in a musical family, nor did he have any private tutors. Instead, his passion for music took root among the streets of Louisville, known for Black street bands. These bands played and grew during an era when African American musical traditions were developing and expanding in new, exciting ways. Black artists, often without access to classical instruction or a wide array of conventional instruments, invented novel rhythms, structures, and instruments to express their creativity. Many of these musicians took up common household objects, such as washboards, stovepipes, combs, and earthen jugs, coaxing out the items’ hidden melodic potential as they honed and popularized the new genres of jazz and blues.
In his early teen years, Earl and a group of friends organized a street band of their own. The band would practice or play after school. McDonald played mostly the string bass and the bass horn, but this changed in 1900, when at the age of 15, McDonald heard the renowned B.D. Tite blowing the jug for Cy Anderson’s jug band. He instantly fell in love with the instrument, and spent the next two years teaching himself how to play it.
In 1902, he formed the Louisville Jug Band with his friends and began playing for money. His mother’s employer, Mr. McDonald, heard them playing on one occasion, and was impressed. He began inviting the band to perform at house parties hosted by his white business associates, and the band quickly garnered widespread recognition among Louisville’s commercial elite. Just a year later, the Louisville Jug Band became the first jug band to play at Churchill Downs, during Derby week. They returned annually to play at or around the races, planting a longstanding tradition of jug bands livening up Derby week. They increasingly made phenomenal money in this manner as well—saxophonist Lucian Brown, who played with McDonald on occasion, remembered earning $125 apiece in a single Derby night during the peak years of the mid-1920s, whereas other nights at the time would net closer to $10.
While playing at the 1914 Derby week, McDonald’s jug band caught the attention of a wealthy theatre aficionado, who invited them to play at parties and concerts in New York. They went on to play in Chicago and record titles that sold worldwide, including Boodle-Am Shake, Louisville Stomp, and Under the Chicken Tree. They would later secure features on a radio show and tour many southeastern states—while still spending the majority of their time in their hometown of Louisville, where some would work day jobs, like store clerking, to supplement their lucrative but unstable performance incomes.
In Louisville, McDonald practiced another hobby that he became well-known for: musical networking. McDonald, armed with natural charm and an enterprising spirit, cemented deep relationships with both employers and fellow musicians, fertilizing Louisville’s musical soil and reaping a bountiful crop of talented Black musicians. His legendary skill on the jug and a swath of other instruments, combined with his propensity for generating masterful synergies between any group of musicians he played with, earned him his title as the “king of jug players.”
Despite his fame and success, McDonald’s later life was marked by obscurity and hardship. He had never been paid the same money as white artists of comparable success, and jug music had fallen into a steep decline in popularity after the 1930s. Through the 1940s, McDonald worked as a porter for the Shackleton Piano Company. He died of a heart attack in 1949. His survivors could not afford a tombstone.
Dedicated fans still remember both McDonald’s music and the musical community he helped create. In 2009, at the National Jug Band Jubilee festival in Louisville, jug band enthusiasts raised $1,200 and commissioned a headstone for his grave site, memorializing the joy that Earl McDonald spread, both in Louisville and around the globe.