Clifford Hayes, Ben Hunter, Earl McDonald, and the Louisville Jug Bands

The following is a guest post by Reader Services Technician Mary Joy Lamb.

Clifford Hayes, “Bye Bye Blues” copyright deposit, 1928. Call number M1356.2.H, Music Division.

While working as a technician in the Library of Congress Music Division I came across Clifford Hayes’s copyright lead sheet for “Bye Bye Blues” from 1928. The yellowed paper, the rushed corrections, and the date caught my eye. I snapped an image and filed it away. I was not familiar with Clifford Hayes nor his role in music as the leader in the Louisville jug bands of the 20’s and 30’s.

I later read a quote in an interview with Seattle violinist Ben Hunter, “Then, I started listening to string band music – like Clifford Hayes. That helped me understand how violinists play the blues in a different way.”[1]

Photograph of Benjamin Hunter by Steve Zorn.

I contacted Ben through his Facebook page and we set up an interview. Ben is a musician, composer, socialpreneur, educator, classically trained violinist, and musicologist living in Seattle. We talked about Hayes and ultimately the Louisville Jug Band scene. Ben told me, “I was taken by his [Hayes’s] style. It had a rural feel to it, but it was tasteful and jazzy. It was ornamented… he bent notes, slid into notes, and mimicked the voice.”

Clifford Hayes came from a family of talented musicians. Born in Glasgow, Kentucky around 1896, he was the family violinist and multi-instrumentalist. For a number of years in the early 1900’s the Hayes Family Band played in and around Barren County about two hours south of Louisville. At the same time, Earl McDonald, one of the most famous jug players of all time, had already established his Louisville Jug Band.

By the early 1900’s jug bands were prevalent in Louisville. Jug music derived influences from New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis and the sounds that traveled up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The sound had a ragged style but was upbeat and danceable. The jug itself was a novelty part of the act, but if you were a good enough player like McDonald, the baritone/bass sound of the jug had a two octave range.

In 1903 at the age of 17, Earl McDonald and his Louisville Jug Band were invited to play at the Kentucky Derby. The Derby was the premiere party event in Louisville every year, bringing in people from all over the country. Derby week was also when jug band musicians made 30-50% of their annual income.

In 1912, the Hayes family moved to Louisville and eventually across the Ohio River to Jeffersonville, Indiana. It was then that Clifford and brothers Curtis, Otis, and Sydney formed a string band and began playing engagements around the area.

McDonald first heard the Hayes Family String band at Churchill Downs in 1913, and offered Hayes a job playing violin in his band.  After only a few sessions Clifford realized that his fiddle style fit in well with the band, and a month before Derby Day in 1914, he joined the Louisville Jug Band as a permanent member.

During the 1914 Derby Week the band put on some phenomenal performances that attracted the attention of a wealthy New York promoter. A contract was signed and the band was off for a six-week stint in New York City. They were booked solid during their stay playing clubs in Harlem, private parties, and a week at the Hippodrome.

In 1924, the Louisville Jug Band had the distinction of being the first jug band to enter the recording studio. Over three sessions they recorded ten songs with established recording artist Sara Martin. The Library of Congress holds these and other recordings by Hayes and McDonald on a four album set titled Clifford Hayes and the Louisville Jug Bands.[2]

Album cover image of Clifford Hayes & The Louisville Jug Bands – Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order – Volume 3 – 1927-1929. Image from Free Easy Zipped blog.

Hayes was handsome and outgoing, a great self-promoter and a natural leader in recording sessions. He was the only member of the band who wrote and arranged music for a living, and unfortunately he took some liberties, such as adding his name in front of McDonald’s band name on the cover of the album set, causing a rift.

It wasn’t the first episode.  McDonald realized that Hayes had been skimming money from the band on the engagements that Hayes had booked as well as stealing the creative rights to Earl’s songs. After that, McDonald and Hayes never played live again, but as in 1924, they still recorded together on and off until 1931. By then McDonald learned to have a written contract with Hayes, who had gained a reputation in the industry as a shady character and a swindler with an eye for women.

Four years later on May 29, 1928 Clifford Hayes and his new band, The Louisville Stompers, boarded a train to Chicago to record, among others, “Bye Bye Blues” with Victor Records. On the “Bye Bye Blues” track Hayes alternated a couple of alto choruses on fiddle and alto sax. This track on Vol. 3 (pictured above) is only one of two recordings on which Clifford Hayes is known to have played sax.

Clifford recorded steadily in the studio from 1924 to 1931 and played at the Kentucky Derby from 1913 until 1929. The last Hayes-McDonald recording session in 1931 was with the “father of country music,” esteemed yodeler Jimmie Rodgers, when they recorded “My Good Gal’s Gone Blues.”

From that yellowing lead sheet I came to know Clifford Hayes–violinist, arranger, innovator, and entrepreneur–an artist who continues to influence musicians like Ben Hunter even today.


[1] Frank Matheis, “The Magnanimous Violin of Ben Hunter,” Living Blues, April 2017, 9.

[2] The online catalog records for each volume are: Vol. 1, 1924-1926; Vol. 2, 1926-1927; Vol. 3, 1927-1929; and Vol. 4, 1929-1931.

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