Juke Joints of the Mississippi Delta
The whole place is shaking. Literally. If it weren’t for the R&B and hip hop music drowning out the creaks of the plywood floors, you might think the entire joint was about to collapse.
“It doesn’t take much in the Delta,” says one man crushed between two extra-friendly women in glittering dresses.
He’s referring to the Mississippi Delta. The soil here is so fertile it has nourished not just miles of moonlit soybean fields, but the very roots of blues and rock and roll music.
This particular spot is called the Po’ Monkey—or Poor Monkey’s, depending on which sign you’re reading. It’s a juke joint deep in the countryside, a mile down a dirt road off Highway 61 in Merigold, Mississippi. Juke joints, where laborers and sharecroppers could enjoy a drink and a dance, are disappearing. Poor Monkey’s looks like it could vanish at any time.
From the outside, it’s an impossibly small, mutated shack of plywood and sheet metal with ancient, randomly protruding air-conditioning units. A sign on the door notifies guests of the three rules: no beer is to be brought inside, no dope smoking is allowed, and no loud music can be played outside the bar.
Inside, the dance floor looks like an arcade prize depot. Dolls and stuffed animals cover the entire ceiling, illuminated by flashing Christmas lights and a giant disco ball.
Locals and college-age visitors grind and gyrate to the bass-heavy blaring of Deejay Doctor Tissue. A skinny old man in a straw hat dances with nearly every girl in the joint. During the fast songs he rolls on the floor, or balances on one foot. During the slow songs, he pulls the girls in close—real close.
“I’m a bad man,” he says over the shoulder of a twenty-something college girl.
By the pool table, a man cools his exposed belly with his dripping wet beer. The table sits on a noticeable slant that worsens depending on which end of the room has the most people standing on it. A patron named T-Mac sets up his next shot, paying little mind to how the pool balls are visibly shaking from the music.
Steve Heath recently graduated from the School of Mass Communication at Loyola University, New Orleans.
Wild Bill’s Social Club
Wild Bill’s sits next to a liquor store in a working class neighborhood of North Memphis, Tennessee. Graffiti adorns the front of the liquor store and bleeds onto Wild Bills’ façade. Newspapers and scraps of trash blow in swirls in front of the club.
It’s 1 a.m. and the The Memphis Soul Survivors are jamming inside the packed club. There is no stage, but enough red lights that patrons seem to glow. Miss Nicky, a vocalist, joins the band and belts out that she’s looking for a “Cooooowboy to ride my pony!”
With encouragement from women in the crowd, she points to one man and sings directly at him while patting the side of her ample behind.
The air reeks of booze and plastic ash trays full of cigarette butts. A lone string of Christmas lights hangs above a wall of snapshots of previous wild nights at the club. Bartender Gail Kearney says it’s been hard to keep the club open during the recession but people still come because “Wild Bill’s feels like home.”
Older black gentlemen in tuxedos and suits dance and sway along with white hipsters in tight jeans. Nearly everyone is tipsy. A woman bangs along with the beat by rapping her cigarette lighter against a 40-ounce beer bottle. With all the clapping and foot-stomping, the place is too loud for conversation.
“Leave your troubles behind,” implores Miss Nicky. Playing keyboard is the famous Archie Turner, who has been a session man for the likes of Al Green, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay and Ann Peebles.
During a break, Turner predicts that if the recession continues to deepen, places like Wild Bill’s will enjoy a strong comeback. He can’t see paying for a high-priced mega-concert when anyone can mingle with living legends for a $10 cover charge.
Many big acts pay homage to the blues while passing through Memphis by joining a set at Wild Bill’s on a Friday or Saturday night. “Everyone comes for jam sessions,” Turner says. “The Stones came. So did Lenny Kravitz.”
But the lack of interest in the blues among youngsters worries him. He and most other bluesmen tour Europe to make ends meet. Still, Turner says he will continue playing in local joints to keep the culture alive.
“Man, it’s inexpressible the feeling I get when I am playing,” Turner says. At 3:30 a.m., the band is still cutting loose, albeit to a now-dwindling crowd.
Sean David Hobbs is a New Orleans-based writer and avid traveler originally from Wisconsin, who spent several years in Istanbul.
Front page photo of musician Chris Pitts by Shane Hennessey.