Juke Joints, Whiskey, and the Blues: Memphis to Clarksdale
Join me as I take a trip looking for Juke Joint culture in the Mississippi Delta.
Listen to the Episode
Time for a road trip into the Mississippi Delta. Taking off from Memphis, I'm in search of the stories of juke joints. Inspired by Blue Note Juke Joint Whiskey, this trip has turned into half a season of fascinating tales of another of my favorite subjects music.
And blues holds its own bountiful harvest of mysteries and lore. In this episode, I will:
- Enjoy a hamburger cooked in a century old grease
- Give some background on the "Father of the Blues"
- Try to uncover where the term "blues" came from
- Try to find Robinsonville, where Robert Johnson lived and played music
- See a load of famous names like Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Bessie Smith and others
- Get offered a building
- Visit the man who wrote the book on Juke Joints
- Talk about the difference between jukes and blues clubs
- Tell why jukes were so popular
- Talk Po' Monkey, Reds, and Gip's Place
- See the crossroads (sign)
A Hunt for Juke Joints, Whiskey, and the Blues
The morning of November 17th, I woke up charged with excitement, anticipating the adventure that lay ahead of me. Not only was I going on a quest for knowledge of juke joints in rural Mississippi, I was also about to dig into a form of music I had long wanted to explore - the blues.
And just like with whiskey, blues history seems clouded in mystery. There are conflicting origin stories, there are plenty of myths and legends, and there is even a dispute over the home of the blues and the father of the blues.
Before taking off on an adventure to the Mississippi Delta, it seems only appropriate to start my journey with a discussion of Memphis and its relationship with the blues.
Memphis and the Blues
The day before my Mississippi adventure, I had made my way down to Beale Street at the conclusion of my interview at Blue Note Bourbon, hoping to catch a quick bite at Dyer’s Hamburgers, the home of the fried burger the cooked in 100 year old grease. Yes, you heard right! Nobody has died yet, as far as I know and I just love a good story - and a chance to taste some history.
After lunch I made my way over to the Peabody Hotel for my interview with Shelby County Historian Jimmy Rout, and found myself crossing through Handy Park. I stopped to admire the statue of its namesake W.C. Handy, referred to as the “Father of the Blues.” Memphis itself is referred to as the Home of the Blues. To the uninitiated, it is easy to hear these monikers and take them at face value.
But as we learned in season two with Elijah Craig, the so-called Father of Bourbon, or Abner Doubleday, the so-called Father of Baseball, these boasts aren’t always connected to realty.
In Handy’s case, he was a teacher from Alabama that spent time in Clarksdale, MS and after centering his musical career in ragtime and minstrel shows, he found a curious form of music in the Mississippi Delta - and when he and his band moved to Memphis in 1909 he took the musical genre with him - added some ragtime flourishes and codified it in sheet music in a 12 bar format.
But Handy wasn’t the first to play it. And what he played was likely a lot more structured than anything heard in the Mississippi Delta at that time. So, he was likely more like Dr. James C. Crow with whiskey or Henry Chadwick in baseball, helping bring a popularity to the product by advancing it through technique or codification - and depending on your individual tastes and opinions, may have improved upon the original.
So if Handy didn’t invent it, who did?
Well, as with baseball and bourbon, the hope of finding an inception story for blues is likely a fool’s errand. No one sat down and said, hey, look at this thing I came up with, I think I’ll call it the blues scale. Or hey, you know if flatten the pitch on this third, fifth, or seventh note, we could call that emotive twist the blue note.
In fact, no one can even agree on where the term “blues” comes from. Today we take for granted that it is a term describing a sad or depressive mood, but it also has roots in moralistic codes - with its possible origins going all the way back to Oliver Cromwell in England - transferred to America by the Puritans. Blue Laws are restrictive laws that limit certain activities, including shopping and drinking alcohol on Sundays.
There is a theory that suggests that the blues got its name from the slow gyrations of patrons huddled together in Southern juke joints in the 1890s. This kind of activity could be seen as a blue or morally scandalous activity that was being accompanied by the devil’s music. The idea is that the musicians who encouraged these blue activities were known as “bluesmen.”
It’s a good story, but just as hard to prove as the Father of Blues or determining the true Home of the Blues.
Still, there is no doubt that Memphis was a musical center where the blues took an early hold. And amazing to think, while standing there looking at the statue of W.C. Handy, that Robert Johnson and Son were playing for tips in this very spot some 85 years ago.
And so maybe the thing we can say about Memphis is that it was actually the great amplifier that boosted the signal of blues and helped bring it to the world.
And so my journey south becomes less about finding the home of the blues and more about finding the seeds that Memphis nurtured and amplified. The cotton fields where the pain and struggle was real. The dusty backroads where a chance encounter could lead to horrifying suffering and death. And the juke joints where sharecroppers went to let loose, forgetting their daily toil and the plantation owners that kept them down, with the hopes of good times and incredible music.
It’s time to head to the Mississippi Delta.
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Clarksdale, the Heart of the Mississippi Delta
There were plenty of tourist signs around announcing my arrival on the official Mississippi Blues Trail as I drove along the famed Highway 61.
I was at a bit of a disadvantage on this trip. Normally when I would get detailed backgrounds on each of the places I’m going to visit but this was kind of a spur of the moment trip. Until two days before I had no idea if I’d even be heading into Mississippi, let alone setting out to scour the countryside for landmarks and jukes. I hadn’t done any of the research on Robert Johnson or the Crossroads. I was a blank slate and today was going to be an adventure.
But I trusted my tuning fork. I had learned from past experience that sometimes if I just let myself go - and didn’t over plan - locals would point me to experiences I never could have planned out of a Google search.
The first place I stopped was at a gas station - a block off Highway 61 on Casino Strip Resort Blvd in an area now known as Tunica Resorts...but in Robert Johnson's day this was the bustling community of Robinsonville...the home of the Old Mill Quarters juke joint where Robert blew away Son House and Willie Brown when he returned from his year absence - supposedly at the Crossroads. But sadly, the Old Mill is long gone and this area is more about the casinos than old juke joint haunts.
I returned to the sprawling 4 lane highway to the East and continued on to Clarksdale, a blues mecca that had been mentioned frequently by my blues loving friends. They long talked about making a pilgrimage here - funny that it would be me, the guy who grew up influenced more by classical and jazz was the first to cross into the heartland of the blues.
I came into town on a backroad down Desoto Avenue, crossed the railroad tracks, which seemed fitting. Turned down Martin Luther King Blvd then up Issaquena Ave. I drove past a variety of worn historic one story brick buildings, some painted, some not. And that is when I noticed the New Roxy theatre to the left and decided to get out and take some pictures. The first thing that caught my attention was the Sam Cooke historic sign. Sam was born not far from this spot in Clarksdale. This would be far from the only legendary name I would see in this town.
I stepped into the very friendly Visitors Bureau to try to get the lay of the land. When I mentioned I was doing a podcast about juke joints, the Executive Director Bubba O'Keefe invited me back into his office and he gave me some great guidance on where I should head next. As usual, I was trying to capture a ton of history in a day and needed all the help I could get.
He said the main man who would definitely be in the know about juke joints was Roger Stolle, the owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, a wonderful throwback record store that was filled with art and nostalgia. After chatting a few minutes more, I thanked everyone at the tourist bureau and continued my way down Issaquena, under and over the railroad tracks again, and past a historic Greyhound station and drug store. Then I turned down 3rd Avenue, seeing some the amazing names along the way. The first one that poked out was Ike Turner. It seems the beautiful 4 story brick building I was looking at was once the Alcazar Hotel where Ike used to work as an elevator operator.
As I was gawking at the building, a fellow driving by in a truck asked me if I was interested in buying the building. I must have been admiring it a bit too much! It would be an awesome location to build a little blues recording studio and record company. So much history. I found that I was standing on John Lee Hooker Lane, named after the legendary electric bluesman who I had first seen in the Blues Brothers movie and who was from just down the road in Tutwiler.
I was starting to wonder if I'd make it to Cat Head with all of these great names staring out at me, but I did. I walked past a Robert Plant stencil that had been painted on the side of a building and snapped a photo. Later I would see a painting of Robert Johnson as well.
When I walked into Cat Head, beyond the amazing amount of trinkets, t-shirts, bins of records, and fascinating black and white photographs was Roger Stolle, manning the counter and taking the occasional phone call. I walked over to him and jumped right in and asked him about juke joint culture. Little did I know that he wrote the book. Well, a book. But a pretty great one. His book Juke Joint Confidential is the perfect read before making your journey to the area. I wish I had. I would have been so better prepared and my questions could have run far beneath the surface.
In the book, he talks about his first time in the Green Lounge in Memphis, with its dim lights, concrete floors, low hung ceilings, wobbly tables and mismatched chairs. He gave a real sense of what the juke joint was all about, saying the place was charged with electricity, sweat, sex, and booze.
He talks about the moonshine culture and how jars of corn liquor would just show up and some was pretty good quality stuff - moonshining would be a skill passed down through the generations, but you also had your share of harsh liquor that could strip the paint off your car. He talks about how that was the norm, which is one of the reasons I discount the idea that Sonny Boy Williamson would have been warning Robert about drinking from a non-sealed bottle. Moonshine doesn't typically come with a seal, unless you're at a place like Ole Smoky's or Sugarlands.
And just like we say all bourbon is whisky, but not all whiskey is bourbon - he says the same is true about juke joints and blues clubs. All juke joints are blues clubs, but not all blues clubs are juke joints.
Jukes aren't always established places. Sometimes they just pop up. They aren't filled with outside marketing drawing you in. In fact, after I saw Reds, I wondered how many people either couldn't find it - because it has no official sign on the building, or may have thought twice about going in, because it almost looked abandoned from the outside. The book featured images of a couple of classic juke joint's, Po Monkey's Lounge out in rural Bolivar County, MS and Gips Place in Bessimer, Alabama. Po Monkey's looked like a dilapidated shack from the outside and not that big. I can imagine what that place looked like when it was jammin' on a Saturday night.
Seeing these places helps instantly relate why not all blues clubs are juke joints. I've been in some pretty high class blues and jazz clubs where you dress to the nines. This is "come as you are" and let your hair down. No one is going to judge you here.
JUKES IN THE EARLY 20th CENTURY
Some of these places could be quite rough. I guess throwing down moonshine could lead to some pretty rowdy behavior.
In the 20's and 30's, juke joints were an escape. If you read the biographies of many great bluesmen from Mississippi, you'll notice a common theme. Their parents were sharecroppers. Sharecropping developed after the Civil War and was a way for African-Americans to continue working the fields and to share in the profits. The problem was, that most planters found a way to handle the books so it didn't look like they were making that much money - then they wouldn't have to share so much. That is why the plantations stayed well furnished and the sharecroppers stayed poor.
Two things helped to reduce the numbers of juke joints in Mississippi. First, many sharecroppers grew tired of the frustrations of being locked into poverty and moved north to find jobs in Chicago, Detroit, and beyond. The other, oddly enough would be civil rights. There became less of a need over time to have your own place because blacks were slowly beginning to adventure into formerly white only establishments. Still, progress was slow in Mississippi and Alabama, so the jukes survived a little longer.
Yet many of them have moved from blues musicians to DJ's. The progress of music and move to Hip Hop has caused many house parties and juke joints to shift their focus. But there are still some of those old blues musicians making the rounds.
There are also a lot more white faces showing up in these establishments. Tourists from all over the world. I found that Australia seemed to be one of the biggest group of overseas tourists in the region. Roger talked about his first time going into Po' Monkey's in the 1990s and there was adult entertainment on the TV and not a white face in the place. But just 10 years later, the adult movies were gone and the crowds were more mixed. Still, the vibe of the place was still the same. Shifted from a sharecropper's shack to a juke in 1963, Willie "Po Monkey" Seaberry gave the place it's special feel - and if you were out late enough, you'd see him come out in his colorful zoot suits with a sign across his chest.
According to Roger, there were 40 jukes in Clarksdale in the 1940s, but just a handful today. When we were chatting he kept bringing up the name of Red Paden, the man that owned Red's Place. Red’s he said was a real deal juke joint and a great place to hang out.
I wished that Red's was opened, so I could go visit, but with the pandemic, even the jukes seemed to be shuttered.
Roger also helped create and organizes the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale and told me the story of his journey from Dayton, Ohio through corporate America to the Mississippi Delta and his cool establishment that was voted one of the best record shops in America.
As I left, I passed Reds and saw the Riverside Hotel, which at one time was a hospital. After legendary singer Bessie Smith's car had been hit by a large truck a ways north on Highway 61, she was brought to this hospital and died from her injuries. Later, when it converted into a hotel, several famous musicians stayed there, including Duke Ellington, Robert Nighthawk, and Ike Turner. It is said this is where Ike wrote the song Rocket 88, which many refer to as the first rock and roll record ever recorded.
I drove down to Abe's BBQ for a plate of pulled pork - it was about time I had some after talking about it for the last two days - and sat looking at the fancy sign in the intersection announcing that this was the Crossroads that Robert Johnson sang about.
But was it? As with all things Robert Johnson, there seemed to be multiple stories or locations for the same thing.
Well, as I told a friend, who was disappointed when he saw my picture of a sign and a busy intersection, rather than two dirt roads crossing each other - my bet is, even if the story is true, Robert apparently didn’t tell anyone where it was.
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Stories, research and production by Drew Hannush
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And until we meet again, cheers and slainte mhath.
- Conversation with Roger Stolle (at Cat Head in Clarksdale, MS)
- Conversation with Poe (WABG AM in Greenwood, MS)
- Roger Stolle: Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential (Highly Recommended)
- Blues Music History (Huffington Post)
- Blues: Wikipedia Article
- W.C. Handy (Memphis Music Hall of Fame)
- W.C. Handy: Wikipedia
- Juke Joint: Wikipedia
- The Dream of Blues is Alive in Clarksdale (Roads and Kingdoms)
- Dancing and Drinking at the South's Last True Juke Joint (Punch Drunk)