Juke Joints: Cradle of the Blues
Cradle of the Blues
By Donna St. George
Philadelphia Inquirer March 23, 1991
The Big Star is a tin-patched roadhouse at the edge of a bean field, a wood-frame one-room juke joint where beer is served in quarts and tissue-paper flowers fill vases on rickety tables. On weekends in the Mississippi Delta, the Big Star beckons across miles of flat farmland.
It’s late on a Friday, the night is cold and the Wesley Jefferson Band is burning up the place. Thirty people are crowded on the dance floor, shoulder to chest to back, shaking and bobbing and swaying. The room is loud and alive. The plywood floor feels ready to collapse.
This is where life's hard edges are eased for an evening in America's poorest countryside. Even if a crop is killed or a town is crumbling, even if people are unemployed and dirt poor, juke joints keep going in the Mississippi Delta. They falter and fold, open and reopen.
Juke joints carry on today much as they have since just after the Civil War, when they were established as a black alternative to white roadhouses. In them, people drank moonshine, rolled dice, danced to music. They were one of the few places a blues artist could play and one of few public places where blacks were treated with dignity in the segregated South.
Juke joints remain a gathering place within small isolated communities, a world maybe 50 people share regularly: more crowded when crops are ripe, more desolate when land is fallow. They are the black equivalent 'of the white honky-took. They are the secular equivalent of the store-front church. And in the birthplace of the blues, they are its cradle.
Even as times change — and some shun juke joints for more sophisticated clubs in bigger towns, where they can hear more rap music and disco — new generations in the Delta continue to find solace in its road-houses of old.
For some, confined by money or miles, that's because there's no choice.
For others, like Jimmy Holmes, it’s because the connection goes deep. ‘
Holmes is a college-educated, second-generation juke-joint owner who for six years taught community-college sociology and biology classes. The Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, 25 miles northwest of Jackson, has been owned by his family since he was born, in 1947. It is a cinderblock roadhouse, painted Olympic blue, with two windows, a bare concrete Moor, a stained pool table, two arcade games and six formica tables-for-two. Bags of chips and cookies are neatly stacked on shelves behind the bar, near big jars of pigs' feet and pickles.
It's late on a Saturday night as Holmes, in a suede jacket and slacks, talks softly from his seat on a ripped black-vinyl bar stool.
Two men are leaning back in folding chairs beside a room heater made out of a four-foot segment of oil pipeline. Blues are bellowing from a 25 year-old Seeburg jukebox that is lit with 1960s neon moons. One woman is dancing with her image in front of a horizontal mirror on the wall. Several young people are lined up at the bar to hear rap music on a color television.
Judy Holmes, Jimmy's older brother, reminds everybody that his favorite song is No. 115: "Hattie Mae" by Artie "Blues Boy" White. His smile widens when someone pops a quarter in the jukebox and punches his number. Jimmy Holmes says whenever rap music is placed in his jukebox, he makes sure it's replaced by blues.
This is a quiet evening. It's rainy and cold. The place really jumps when the blues are live. Most of the time, that means the performers are Jack Owns, an 85-year-old guitar player, and Bud Spires, 59, a blind harmonica player. They are inseparable old-time bluesmen — as hard to come by on some nights as a good-paying job.
"When they play, you can't hardly get in," enthuses Robert Hicks, 35, a millworker who stops in the Blue Front a couple of times a week and counts himself as one of its best pool-shooters. Jimmy Holmes grew up helping his parents run the road-house; he's operated it since 1970. He may return to teaching in the fall, he says but he'll never leave his juke joint. Now it's part of him.
Some of his customers are loyal regulars of the Blue Front; others stop for a beer on their way out to a fancier club. When someone in town is looking for somebody, they often stop to ask Jimmy Holmes.
"Ninety percent of the people come by some time during the week," says Holmes, a thoughtful man of 43 who is known as "Duck" to his customers.
"People bring in all kinds of problems," he says. "It's almost like a family unit. In a juke joint, almost everyone knows everyone or is related. You could fill up this place right now and there wouldn't be two strangers."
It's a similar sense of belonging that keeps people coming back to the White Rose Cafe in Tutwiler, Miss.
It is a rose-pink stucco roadhouse, marked by a neon Miller sign, in a town that, like many others in the Delta, has been declining for many years. Florence Seawood, 68, a lively woman of firm ideas, has owned the White Rose for 28 years with her husband, Claude.
The Seawoods run an old-time juke joint, with two jukeboxes full of blues. The bar looks like a lunch counter; the mint-green walls are adorned with cardboard beer signs. Business is slower than it used to be, Florence Seawood says. But her customers are loyal, she says as four middle-aged friends laugh and talk at the table beside her, crunched beer cans piled before them like a centerpiece.
Suddenly inspired, one of them, Bill Goss, 45, takes Seawood's hand.
Under yellow, blue and red crepe-paper streamers, across the linoleum floor, Goss and Seawood twist and sway to Clarence Carter's "Dance to the Blues." By the time the song is over, six other people have joined them.
"She's the one that taught me how to dance," Goss gushes as everyone in the White Rose applauds. "I've been coming here for five years, and I feel like I'm at home."
Delta life has long found expression in its juke houses — through music and art and dance, through love and fighting.
It shows in the color and designs of juke joints, which often include brightly painted reds, yellows and blues; some are adorned with more intricate paintings of women or animals, as was portrayed by Birney Imes in his recent book of photographs, Juke Joint.
Every now and then, expression comes in violence —ginger that erupts in rock-throwing at one juke joint, a beating outside another.
From the early days, though, it was the music of juke joints that most evidently expressed Delta life. Such legendary bluesmen as Robert John-son, Charlie Patton and Muddy Waters played in Delta roadhouses, singing about cotton and catfish, poverty and heart break. These days, down-home Delta blues artists are fewer, and the old blues arc less popular among blacks.
But a good blues band still jams a juke joint.
At the Big Star in Merigold, where strings of Christmas lights blink color onto the bare walls, people are applauding loudly.
The Wesley Jefferson Band is in high gear. People are dancing fervent-ly, some from their chairs. Hands are waving through the air, heads nodding. The bare wooden floor is shaking, heaving.
“Play the blues!” one woman screams.
The band veers into the lonesome swoon of "Sweet Sixteen" by B.B. King.
The place is throbbing, but the quiet-mannered lead guitar player is holding a blank gaze above the crowd. He's in a fix: His wife, from whom he has been separated, has shown up on the same evening as his new girlfriend. One woman is watching him, the other watching her.
Roosevelt Buckner stands across the room, smiling. He's the warm, robust factory worker who owns the juke joint and whom everybody calls "Stool." Most weekend nights, he spins 45s on a record player behind the bar.
"I don't make enough to pay my light bills," he admits in a reflective moment, "but 1 like being here."