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The influence of African Americans on Kentucky music

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The Louisville Folk School and Kentucky Performing Arts are launching a series that dives into trailblazing African American musicians like Henry Hart.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville looked a lot different during the early days of jazz. If you wanted to hear jazz before the 1900s, you most likely found it on the wharf or one of the steamboats.

That’s where WHAS11’s Doug Proffitt sat down with music historian Michael Jones, overlooking the city’s original riverfront rooftops that became the birthplace of the city’s African American influence on Kentucky music.

“Being on the river, so much of the music associated with Louisville is on the riverboats and then you have Walnut Street, which is now Muhammad Ali. So really, we’re close to the heart of the where it was all happening,” Jones said.

Jones is launching a webinar series that dives into trailblazing African American musicians like Henry Hart.

“[Hart] got famous playing on riverboats between Louisville and New Orleans,” Jones said.

Hart is an important figure, not only for his musical accomplishments, but his rich tie to Kentucky’s most famous explorer.

“His grandmother, Dolly, had accompanied Daniel Boone to Kentucky and his father, Frederick Hart, was the first baby born in Fort Boonesborough,” Jones said.

The Frankfort-born Hart would create songs that ended up in the Library of Congress and led to financial success.

Jones’ research zeroes in on what started the vibrant African American music connection in Louisville.

“The fiddle and the banjo would have the been the instruments that Black artists played in the 19th century,” Jones said.

And then, there was Louisville’s twisted history with the Civil War. We aligned with the Union, but on main street you would have seen recruiters for the North and the Confederacy. We made uniforms for both the North and South.

With Black people joining the Union, also came new music in Louisville.

“If you have African Americans coming from all over the state, some of them are going to be musicians, it’s going to explain why different styles of music came together in the city,” Jones said.

Jones discovered more evidence that the music was noticed by soldiers.

“When you read the diaries of some of the Union soldiers that were in Louisville, they talk about the entertainment,” Jones said.

But 30 years before the Civil War, you find more evidence of the city’s developing music.

“The first band leader I can find in Louisville was named Henry Williams and he was a dance instructor. He ran a dance in school for children of elite families,” Jones said.

Williams had the first big band in Louisville.

“It actually included German musicians because the Germans didn’t have the same prejudices as some of the other Europeans. So, they would play together at parties and on riverboats,” Jones said.

In more modern times, Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass,” called another key figure, who never got the spotlight, the “Godfather of Bluegrass’—Kentucky-born Arnold Shultz, an African American fiddler and guitarist who ended up teaching Monroe and Merle Travis.

“I think there’s definitely more interest in African American culture in general and how it fits into the greater history of the state,” Jones said.

Forgotten no more, Michael jones believes the fallout from COVID-19 will bring a cultural explosion, where African American artists from the past see their day once again.

“If you think back to 1918 after the Spanish Flu, what happened after that? The Jazz Age!” Jones said.

The Louisville Folk School and Kentucky Performing Arts are launching a series that dives into these trailblazing African American musicians. The 3-week series starts April 11 at 4p.m. on both of their Facebook pages.


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