The rural juke joint played an integral role in the development of the blues, offering a distinctly secular space for people to socialize, dance, and forget their everyday troubles. While many such jukes once dotted the cotton fields of the Delta countryside, Po’ Monkey’s was one of the relatively few to survive into the 21st century. Initially frequented by locals, Po’ Monkey’s became a destination point for blues tourists from around the world during the 1990s.
According to Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry he opened a juke joint at his home in this location in 1963. Seaberry (b. 1941) worked as a farmer and operated the club, where he continued to live, at night. By the 1990s Po’ Monkey’s was attracting a mixed crowd of locals as well as college students from Delta State University and blues aficionados in search of “authentic” juke joints. The dramatic décor both inside and outside the club also attracted attention from news outlets including the New York Times and noted photographers including Annie Leibovitz and Mississippi’s Birney Imes, who featured the club in his 1990 book Juke Joint. Despite such notoriety Po’ Monkey’s in many ways continued to typify the rural juke joint, furnished with a jukebox, a pool table, beer posters stapled to the walls, and Christmas lights strung across the walls and ceiling. Modern juke joints were preceded by informal “jookhouses” that were actually tenants’ houses on plantations. Residents would clear the furniture from the largest room and spread sawdust on the floor in preparation for an evening, and often sold fried fish and homemade liquor to those who gathered for music, dancing, and gambling. Such gatherings were called house parties, fish fries, country suppers, Saturday night suppers, balls, or frolics. Many musicians recall first hearing blues at jookhouses run by neighbors or family members. Some artists, including Muddy Waters, ran their own jukes in Mississippi. In the 1930s coin-operated phonographs became widely distributed throughout the South and quickly became known as “jukeboxes.” Since that time, most music at juke joints (including Po’ Monkey’s) has been provided not by live performers but by jukeboxes and, later, by deejays.
The term “juke”—sometimes spelled “jook” and often pronounced to rhyme with “book” rather than “duke”—may have either African or “Gullah” origins, and scholars have suggested meanings including “wicked or disorderly,” “to dance,” and “a place of shelter.” Used as a noun, “juke” refers to small African American-run bars, cafes, and clubs such as Po Monkey’s; as a verb, it refers to partying. Variations of “jook” first appeared on recordings in the 1930s, and at a 1936 session in Hattiesburg the Mississippi Jook Band made what were later described as the first “rock ’n’ roll” records. “Juke” gained widespread recognition in 1952 as the title of a hit record by blues harmonica player Little Walter. More formal establishments in towns and cities eventually replaced most rural juke joints, but jukes continued to occupy an important place in the imagination of blues fans and performers. In the 21st century Mississippians Little Milton, Lee Shot Williams, Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry, and Johnny Drummer sang and composed new songs about jukes, and in 2004 Clarksdale established an annual “Juke Joint Festival” to celebrate the city’s down-home venues.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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