Soul of Russell celebrates Louisville’s black music history

Barrington “Boogie” Morton was a jazz musician from Louisville. The Soul of Russell Arts and Cultural Festival will celebrate his music, as well as other Louisville musical greats. | Courtesy

This weekend, Aug. 24-26, blues, jazz and jug band enthusiasts can get their fill of Louisville’s rich cultural history at the Soul of Russell Arts and Cultural Festival.

This is the first year for the event, which will be held at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and will celebrate Louisville’s black music history.

The Russell neighborhood is full of deep musical history, said Aukram Burton, executive director of the Center for African American Heritage. In fact, Muhammad Ali Boulevard was once Walnut Street, which was an active center for blues and jazz clubs in Louisville.

“At one time, Walnut Street was the place to be,” Burton said. “It was where a number of clubs existed — jazz and blues clubs. People came from all over.” 

Mary Ann Fisher was a blues singer born in Henderson, Ky., and placed in an orphanage in Louisville, where she was adopted. She was a backup singer and lover of Ray Charles, who wrote several songs about her. | Courtesy

But urban renewal caused those clubs to disappear, and the Center for African American Heritage, along with the Kentucky Music Heritage Foundation, decided to devote the first incarnation of the Soul of Russell to music.

Eventually, Burton hopes the festival will have more of a broad scope of cultural offerings, but it was put together in just a couple of months, so there wasn’t enough time to add other types of offerings.

But that doesn’t mean visitors won’t have plenty to do and see. From 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, local blues and jazz artists will perform tributes to the great artists of Louisville’s past.

Musicians Tanita Gaines, Karan Chavis, Carla Reisert and the Midwest Creole Ensemble will perform songs remembering Mary Ann Fisher, Helen Humes, Sara Martin, Barrington “Boogie” Morton, and William “Roach” Cochram, and there will be a special tribute to the late bluesman Steve Ferguson, a Louisville native and founder of NRBQ.

On Saturday, local author and jug band expert (and Insider Louisville writer) Michael L. Jones will give a talk about the history of jug band music in Louisville, along with blues expert Keith Clements. Jug bands got their start in the city, which is now the home of the annual National Jug Band Jubilee.

Louisville native Sara Martin was one of the most popular blues singers of her time. | Courtesy

“We’re considered the home of jug band music because we produced the first music to record,” Jones said. “Sara Martin, the blues singer, went into the studio in 1924 with members of the Louisville Jug Band to produce 10 songs that were released in 1925.

“Whistler’s Jug Band, a Louisville jug band, went into a studio in Indiana just a day later. This led to a jug band craze that lasted through the Depression.”

Martin was once the highest paid black performer in the country, Jones said. “They call her the Famous Moaning Mama,” he added.

Louisville’s black music tradition is just as important as New Orleans or Memphis, Jones said, but it just hasn’t been celebrated.

The narrative of popular music tells us that blues started in the Mississippi River Delta and jazz started in New Orleans,” Jones explained. “But all of those things were happening in river towns all over the country. There was a lot of back-and-forth. People from Louisville were going to New Orleans constantly. If you wanted to do business in the Deep South, you had to go through Louisville.

“It also has the German influence and the French from Shippingport,” he continued. “And all of this got incorporated into black music in Louisville. At one time in the 19th century, Louisville was one of the top cities in the country. That meant that the black population here was important, too.”

From 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, there will be the Soulful Sounds of Derby Town. The event will showcase some of Louisville’s current artists, such as Robbie Bartlett, Marjorie Marshall, Paula Yarbrough, “Mr. Wonderful” Ron Lewis and The Villeffect Band. 

Kimberly Vaughan | Courtesy

The event will be emceed by local comedian Kimberly Vaughan, aka the Glamour Girl of Comedy.

Burton said the event, along with other cultural events the KCAAH is doing, is one more way to highlight the good things going on in Russell.

“We tend to look at this area in the way it’s portrayed on the television and on the evening news, and that’s a very shortsighted view of the community,” said Burton. “Does this community have problems? Yes, it has problems like all communities. But we don’t deserve to be portrayed in that way.”

Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door and/or $35 for both nights. Tickets available at Eventbrite and Better Days West, or you can buy them in person at the Kentucky Center for African America Heritage, 1701 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.