Curious Louisville

If you listen to our sister station 91.9 WFPK (or attended Forecastle in 2016) you’ve probably heard of Pokey LaFarge, an artist whose music, as NPR’s Stephen Thompson said, “evokes the old-timey spirit of a thousand crackling 78 RPM records.”

LaFarge is based in St. Louis, but lived in Louisville for a time, which is what inspired his 2015 song “Home Away From Home” — and our latest Curious Louisville question from listener Troy Richardson.

“In it he names a lot of Louisville landmarks of which I know all, except for one that he mentioned which was ‘Carpet Alley, where Clifford Hayes and his jug band plays,’” Richardson said. “I’ve asked a lot of musicians around town and no one seems to know anything about the jug band scene in Old Louisville and where Carpet Alley might be.”

But I knew someone who would know something: Michael Jones, the author of “Louisville Jug Music,” board member for the national Jug Band Jubilee and an African-American music historian.

According to Jones, Carpet Alley was a very real place, one that would have started around 6th and Cedar.

“It’s all been torn down,” Jones said. “Especially during the 50s when the city did urban renewal and they got rid of the Old Walnut Street black business district and redid everything.”

The way he describes it, the white residents would have had homes actually facing the street.

“And then the black families would live in the alleys,” Jones said. “So, besides Carpet Alley, in my research, I found Bug Alley. They were probably (living in) like carriage houses.”

But this particular alley had a big impact on the Louisville jug band scene, and the musicians associated with it; musicians like Earl McDonald.

“Earl McDonald, a jug blower who is mainly the focus of my book, he always had a job and a stable home, so his home became the center for the jug band scene and people would jam there and hang out and, you know, get a meal,” Jones said.

He continued: “So if you look in the city directory, from 1916 to like around 1930, he’s always got an address on Carpet Alley and he even wrote a song called ‘Carpet Alley Breakdown.’”

And, Jones said, Carpet Alley had a reputation in the city; he brought an old news clipping from the Courier Journal that started: “Officer John Manly had a thrilling experience in making an arrest in Carpet Alley between 12th and 13th. Only his presence of mind saved him from being shot and probably killed.”

Archived: Louisville Courier-Journal

A headline about Carpet Alley.

“I think it was pretty wild and a lot of partying going on. A lot of police reports and violence,” Jones said. “You know, I’d found one report actually that involved Earl McDonald, where he got arrested on 12th Street at three in the morning for disorderly conduct because his jug band just started playing music on the corner and he was known to, you know, drink a lot of whiskey so he could get those empty jugs.”

Pokey LaFarge’s ‘Home Away from Home’ doesn’t mention Earl McDonald — but it does mention Clifford Hayes, a multi-instrumental artist and the leader of the Dixieland Jug Blowers, of which McDonald was a member.

Wikimedia Commons

Clifford Hayes and Earl McDonald with their Louisville jug band.

So, Jones said, it stands to reason the two would have had some jam sessions at McDonald’s home on Carpet Alley.

Pokey LaFarge wasn’t available to talk for this piece — but he’s been compared to Clifford Hayes several times. Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show once wrote: “What saintly patron brought Clifford Hayes back from the dead and sent him back to Carpet Alley to reclaim his crown?”

Listen to this story in the player above and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts. You can ask your own Curious Louisville question here or in the form below. 

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.