For plantation workers in the American South, a juke joint was
a safe place to congregate. Originally the joint might be nothing more than
somebody's house, one room, the furniture removed, and a bucket of beer, where
tired cotton-pickers would gather to dance and drink and hear some blues.
They were open Saturday nights, since most workers only got one and a half
days off a week. They'd finish Saturday afternoon, and start again bright
and early Monday morning. Sunday was church...so Saturday night was time to
party! When the jukes moved to the urban centers they didn't change much.
They were still big rooms in the basements of hotels, or in old warehouses;
the furniture was "catch as catch can" spread out around the outside
of the room, with the center floor open for dancing. Admission was cheap,
and beer reasonably priced to allow a good time to be had by all. The juke
joints are almost gone, replaced by casinos with fancy buildings and high
prices, catering to a middle class crowd. But there are a couple of hold-outs
in Mississippi, still featuring blues on weekends, inexpensive buckets of
beer, and a place where blues lovers can dance the night away! Last of
the Mississippi Jukes celebrates their existence.
Film-makers Robert Mugge and David Hughes have put together a beautiful tribute to the juke joint, and in the process showcase some of the great blues music still being played in the last remaining jukes. This is a film (DVD) that needs to be played LOUD! And often! The film begins with Alvin Youngblood Hart playing a Charley Patton tune on the stage of the Ground Zero Blues Club. Located in Clarksdale Mississippi, this club is a faithful recreation of an original juke joint. Owner Morgan Freeman (and his partners) have lovingly reconstructed a juke joint from the ground up. They bought unmatched chairs and tables at auctions and flea markets; they found advertising signs and Christmas lights (a staple of real jukes) and built a remarkable likeness here in the heart of blues country. Clarksdale is where the crossroads is, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil..."ground zero" of the blues! For all their efforts, and the brilliance of Alvin Youngblood Hart's blues, their audience seems to be mostly white yuppies, who sit, smoke and drink, while the dance floor is empty.
The second part of the film moves to another club, in Jackson, Mississippi...the Subway Lounge. Built in the basement of the Summers Hotel, this club has operated for 30 years. The Summers Hotel was the only black owned hotel in Jackson for years, and served as a stopping place for Martin Luther King, James Brown, and many others who weren't welcome in white hotels. The hotel is in disrepair, and was marked for demolition until a group of concerned citizens made the case for saving such an historic site. The loss of the hotel would have meant the end of the Subway Lounge, and the end of an era. This is the Last of the Mississippi Jukes.
A dozen and a half performances by the two house bands and various guest singers are fleshed out with interviews with a variety of shareholders. I'm talking about people who have stock in the Subway because they play there, they dance there, they work there...and Jimmy King who owns the place. The performances are all outstanding. The two bands are The House Rockers, and the King Edward Blues Band. They play on alternate weekends, and they love the Subway so much that on off nights the musicians from one band show up to jam after their own jobs elsewhere! They love the blues, and they love this juke joint.
The interviews are moving and interesting. The history of the club is traced through memories of the musicians and Jimmy King, and illustrated with historical footage of 60's racial unrest. White patrons talk about racial harmony and safety in the club. Although jukes were known as "buckets of blood" for their propensity towards violence...no one can recall a fight in the Subway. It's safe to park your Mercedes on the street outside the Subway. The long fight to maintain the club and save the hotel is traced with footage of Harvey Johnson, the mayor of Jackson, Bettye Dagner, a city councilwoman, and others who worked so hard. Chris Thomas King, blues singer and actor, is shown in an intimate discussion with Jimmy King. Chris's father owned his own juke, and he shares memories and a song. Blues historian Dick Waterman gives a fascinating tour of his own photographs which details the history of the blues. His masterful black and white portraits of Son House, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and BB King are as beautiful to look at as they are historic.
The musical performances are invigorating. Patrice Moncell is featured on a couple of songs, she owns the stage as she fronts the House Rockers on a stirring version of "Stormy Monday Blues." Vasti Johnson plays some stinging guitar on "Casino in the Cottonfield," an original blues which outlines the problem of the big casinos taking customers away from the local jukes. The patrons of the Subway are much more interactive than those shown at Ground Zero. The dance floor is packed! All in all the film is a wonderful tribute to both the music and the environment of the jukes. These people love the blues and they love the Subway Lounge.
Much of the music from this film is available on a CD with the same title. One could argue slightly about the songs chosen or dropped but it's all such good, raw, gutbucket blues that it isn't worth quibbling about. Alvin Youngblood Hart's sizzling "Joe Friday," Bobby Rush's humorous "Garbage Man," and the amazing Patrice Moncell's "Stormy Monday Blues" are all highlights...on an album with no lowlights. Even without the video portion this music rocks!
A quote from Morgan Freeman serves to introduce the program
in the liner notes, and it seems particularly appropriate. "This music
is really historic. In fact when Europe was writing operas over a hundred
years ago...the blues was being created here. We're doing more to preserve
European classical music than we are to preserve American classical music--the
blues. Now that's rather ironic." And he's right! Even today a snobbery
exists which elevates European classical composers over American singers,
songwriters and especially...bluesmen. This is American culture...captured
on DVD, and on CD.
We wish much success to Ground Zero, and to the movement to keep the Subway open.