Little known Paducah jug band musician Stovepipe No. 1 left unique mark on genre's history
Though Jones was last spotted alive in the 1960s, his music has managed to live on. A collection of his recordings with David Crockett was released in 1988 by RST Records and reissued on CD by Document Records in 1994. That same collection is now available digitally.
Though not known to many, Stovepipe No. 1 – a west Kentucky musician nicknamed for his hat and instrument of choice – left a unique mark on the history of jug band music.
Born Samuel Chambers Jones in August 1890, the Black Paducah native would go on to become a roving musician and recording artist trading in the genres of the time – blues, ragtime, folk and jug music.
“Sam Jones was a performer who straddled the fence between Blues, Gospel and the Country string band tradition,” Cincinnati music writer Uncle Dave Lewis wrote for AllMusic. “Given his unusual choice of instrument, Sam Jones was a natural for Jug bands.”
McCracken County Public Library local and family historian Nathan Lynn said, like many great Black musicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very little is known about Jones’ personal life.
“What blows my mind about this is [that] this man is putting out this amazing music and there’s no mention of him anywhere in Paducah newspapers,” said Lynn, a folk musician with a proclivity for river tunes.
Though it’s not known when he left Paducah and western Kentucky, Jones was a traveling artist by the early 1910s, playing live music on street corners, in speakeasies and occasionally even at funerals. Eventually, he wound up in Cincinnati’s West End.
The Black Voice of Cincinnati – an Ohio cultural and historical group – described the West End as home to a large population of African-Americans who moved to the city from the South hoping to find jobs and improved race-relations. It was also the home of the Cotton Club, a venue where Jones frequently performed.
Journalist and author Michael Jones has written a book on Louisville jug music. He said musicians like Stovepipe No. 1 don’t fall into rigid genre categories and that artists would often change up their styles with their audiences.
“He’s a mysterious figure. People usually say ‘this song may be Stovepipe’ or Stovepipe might have been identified with this person,” Jones said. “You think of American music as this one narrative, but it’s like a tree – it's very complicated. There were different people from different races influencing one another.”
Jones developed his nickname partly because he regularly wore a stovepipe hat, filling it with cash so it would fit his head. He also played a stovepipe instrument – usually a section of tin pipe, three to four inches in diameter – when performing.
Jones claimed his nickname was stolen by Alabama blues artist Johnny Watson, who went by the name Daddy Stovepipe. Jones later added “No. 1” to his nickname to assert his claim he was the original stovepipe player.
One of the surviving descriptions of Jones, attributed to friend and fellow blues artist James “Pigmeat” Jarrett in Steven C. Tracy’s “Going to Cincinnati: A History of Blues in the Queen City,” identifies him as a one-man band, though he would often be accompanied by musicians like guitar players Charlie Red and David Crockett and harmonica player Little Joe. Jarrett himself would often accompany Jones as a piano player.
According to “Going to Cincinnati,” Jarrett admired Jones’s harmonica playing and singing. He said Jones’s voice sounded more like a mature, middle-aged man than a man in his 20s.
Jones’ first breakthrough happened when he recorded with Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, in May 1924. He recorded six songs including “Sixth Street Blues,” an ode to Cincinnati's Sixth Street.
His recording with Gennett showed his wide range of musical ability and style. Another song from the recording, “Spanish Rag,” refers to the Spanish tuning or open G tuning Jones used when playing the song.
Music during this time period was often segregated between “race records” – blues, spiritual and dance music marketed to Black audiences – and “hillbilly records” which used Appalachian and country music marketed towards White audiences. These categories were meant to help predict audience taste and to prevent cultural integration.
Three months after Jones’ session with Gennett, he cut 20 songs with Columbia Records in New York City, including his version of the folk standard “Turkey in the Straw.” He also recorded his version of “Cripple Creek” for Columbia, a song that music historians have documented as being marketed to white audiences.
Jones’s last recording was with Okeh Records in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1930, with guitarist David Crockett under the name King David’s Jug Band. There are no known recordings of Stovepipe after 1930.
“The King David Jug Band records afford us an opportunity to hear the stovepipe that Sam Jones played in better than acoustically recorded sound,” Dave Lewis said in a feature on the musician he reported for Cincinnati’s WVXU. “With all of the study that has been done in the area of blues, we are still miles away from a granular understanding of the differences between these various traditions.”
There’s a lack of historical record for the end of Jones’ life and it’s still unknown when or where he died. Through the 1950s, he could still be seen performing in the Cincinnati area, playing on street corners and in bars.