We Juke Up In Here!
Mississippi’s Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads
A film by Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel
By Eric Wrisley
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is on the road this week and his column will return next week. This week Eric Wrisley looks at an important DVD.
In a new documentary, film makers Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel have teamed up again to explore the demise of the “real” juke joint culture in Mississippi. Visiting several surviving clubs and talking with dozens of musicians and club owners, Stolle and Konkel get to the heart of the juke’s popularity and decline, uncovering why the clubs existed, why some have survived, and why so many have gone away. While the film is documentary, We Juke Up In Here! sometimes reads like a promotional video for the region, and even more as a promotional video for a particularly colorful juke owner, Red Paden.
Stolle and Konkel are clearly friends with Red and the first part of the film focuses on Red’s thirty-plus years of experience owning multiple juke joints in and around Clarksdale, Mississippi. His current gig, Red’s Place, may be the most popular and well known of the jukes in the area. There’s little dispute that Clarksdale is the origin of the blues and Red makes it clear that he’s known and worked with many of the artists who came out of the Delta. What’s also clear is that Clarksdale is no longer the home of the blues, with the popularity of traditional blues falling by the wayside as R&B, soul, and other more modern forms have taken its place. The purveyors of traditional music find this part of the evolution of the music scene troubling, even if it is organic and natural.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes runs the Blue Front Café in Bentonia, Mississippi. Knowing that the local audiences are no longer clamoring for his style of traditional blues, he books more popular soul-blues acts for the weekends at his club. This allows him to play an opening set while giving the crowd what it wants.
Another, less organic, reason for the decline of the jukes is the emergence of casinos and riverboat gambling. Big George Brock, who is the focus of another of Stolle’s films, Hard Times, at one time owned three clubs simultaneously. He ran the clubs and played with the bands, often running from one club to the next between sets. Now, the casinos have come in, offering free drinks to patrons, luring the locals away from the smaller, less sophisticated clubs where they have to pay for a half-pint or a beer. I’ll add to this the fact that “going out” has changed everywhere in recent years. Local clubs and attractions in any smaller town play second fiddle to the bigger metropolitan areas. The riverboats may not have caused the change, but they have hastened it along the Mississippi.
Stolle points out a third factor in the decline of the local club circuit: the once prosperous Delta is no longer thriving, and jobs are limited. With less expendable money, blues has taken a hit when it comes to how people spend their entertainment dollars. There’s money at the first of the month, he says, but it’s scarce other than that. Unable to offer a better value than the larger venues, the local clubs suffer.
Equally interesting is the motivation of the club owners. Paden is a businessman running a business, with kids to put through college. Still, there he has a deeper obligation. He sees himself as a steward of the scene, keeping it going now that so many of the Delta bluesmen are gone. He fancies himself the “king of the juke runners,” and takes that role seriously.
The Blue Front Café is the antithesis of the shiny casinos: plain cinder-block walls, a bare cement floor, peeling paint, and canned beers. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes knows what his competition is, and he’s ready to meet it. “It’s not about the blues,” he says. “It’s about the experience of the Blue Front and the blues.” His club is the real experience and that’s what keeps the locals coming back. Holmes says that he’s not in it for the money, and knows that it’s not a money maker. As long as the club doesn’t cost him to run, he is happy to break even. He doesn’t say it this way, but he’s also a keeper of the culture.
Stolle and Konkel also make a visit to the Do Drop Inn, where they previously filmed scenes for M for Mississippi in 2008. Finding it closed, they assume that the club is no longer a live music venue, but just a regular bar. They are surprised to discover that it is still open under new ownership, and even more surprised (and maybe a little disappointed) to find that the new owner is giving it a shot as a blues club, but the conditions are stacked against him. Arnold Lopez bought the bar because he was a regular and the owner gave him a good price. Most weekends he has DJs spinning blues, and he occasionally has live blues acts. The economics are what give him trouble. While he can charge considerably more for live music, he can easily collect three dollar covers from patrons when he has a DJ.
What seems like good news for the blues, and a point that Stolle and Konkel gloss over quickly, is that the Do Drop Inn remains a blues club, even if it is DJs rather than live bands. Not a juke in the truest sense, but still delivering blues to blues fans. If anything, a bar like the Do Drop might be the next step in the evolution of jukes, but Stolle seems only interested in live music, and so he moves on to the next joint.
In the end, Juke is a film about the past and present of jukes, with an eye to the future. More than once, Stolle asks, “What’s the future of the juke joint?” The musicians acknowledge that there are fewer opportunities to hear live music, and fewer opportunities to play out. The days of multiple clubs in close proximity may be a thing of the past in rural Mississippi, but some remain. Red Paden’s answer to the slowdown is to focus on “slow money,” something he learned from the slow process of picking cotton. If club owners and musicians expect to get rich quick, they are headed for failure. Slow money means being in it for the long haul with no end in sight.
The film features live performances by and interviews with artists that are little known outside the region, which are fascinating. Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood performs electric and acoustic numbers; Big A and the All Stars show off their rocking blues band; Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a classic who channels John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson rolled into one; Big George Brock’s harmonica number is deep and soulful. With the DVD, there is an accompanying CD soundtrack with the best of these performances, along with a couple of clips from interviews with Red Paden. The film often cuts the performances short; the disc satisfies the longing for more.
Even though the film can be heavy handed in its depiction of Red Paden as the “man,” he is an engaging and entertaining character. In an area that is depressed and often depressing, Paden’s positive outlook is an anomaly, but that’s the essence of the “real deal” blues. With We Juke Up In Here! Stolle and Konkel have managed to capture the remains of the Mississippi juke culture before it disappears.
Eric Wrisley is a contributing editor at BluesWax and a contributing writer at Blues Revue.
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