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Author Topic: Last of the juke joints - but doesn't play blues  (Read 1125 times)

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Offline outfidel

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Last of the juke joints - but doesn't play blues
« on: March 02, 2007, 06:01:24 AM »
March 2, 2007
Merigold Journal

At Night, Farmer Trades His Tractor for the Blues

By ERIK ECKHOLM
The New York Times

MERIGOLD, Miss. ? Thursday is known as ?family night? at Po? Monkey?s juke joint here, but that doesn?t mean you should bring your kids to this patched-up sharecropper shack that has swayed with rhythms and blues for nearly 50 years.

The distinction here is with Monday, the only other night that Po? Monkey n? Willie Seaberry, 65 and a farmworker by day, opens his little club. On Mondays, the strippers make the two-hour drive from Memphis to work a raunchier crowd for tips.

Not that some Thursday patrons, mostly black men and women, middle-age and up, aren?t above a little dirty dancing themselves, although fully clothed. The D.J. stretches his definition of the blues, playing modern R&B that has every bottom shaking.

If there is a floor show on Thursdays at this club, one of the last old-style juke joints, the kind where the Delta blues once incubated, it is offered by Mr. Seaberry himself.

Around 9 p.m., as patrons begin to fill a room decorated with toy monkeys, beer posters and a silver disco ball, Mr. Seaberry emerges in a startling suit of red with white pinstripes and a snazzy white hat, and smoking a cheroot.

He works the crowd, which includes retired teachers, current and former farmworkers and a sheriff from Greenville, as he ferries $2 cans of beer.

An irrepressibly smiley man with a trimmed moustache, Mr. Seaberry grew up in a nearby shack, at the tail of the era when mechanization of cotton farming and the lure of Chicago depopulated the region.

But he has never let poverty stop him from strutting.

Later, he disappears to his bedroom at the back and re-emerges, now wearing a white suit; soon, he changes into a plaid suit with a red derby, and still later into dark pink.

?If I don?t get out there acting like a clown, people think there?s something wrong with me,? Mr. Seaberry explained. He said he owned more than 100 suits.

?A lot of folks wanted to get out, listen to the blues and fight and shoot,? he said of the onetime proliferation of such clubs, adding that his own has never seen much violence.

For much of the last century, juke joints were the main nightspots for rural blacks. Now, with the casinos of Greenville a half-hour away and younger blacks into hip-hop, Mr. Seaberry does not open his club on weekends.

The word ?juke? is believed to be derived from the African-influenced Gullah dialect of the Southeast coast, in which ?jook? means ?disorderly? or ?wicked.? In 1934, the folklorist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ?Jook is a word for a Negro pleasure house,? often a ?bawdy house? where black workers ?dance, drink and gamble.?

In the Delta of northwest Mississippi, an alluvial plain where cotton and sharecropping long ruled, juke joints were condemned by preachers as the houses of the devil, but they offered welcome relief from drudgery. Touring these clubs in the early 20th century, men like Charlie Patton, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson pioneered the blues as an art form.

Just when did Mr. Seaberry start the club? His own memories can be vague.

?I don?t know exactly to a T,? he said. ?Maybe 40 or 50 years ago.?

And what is the source of the name?

?Po? Monkey is all anybody ever called me since I was little,? he said. ?I don?t know why, except I was poor for sure.?

He doesn?t recall any blues stars ever playing at his club, which has live music on special occasions. The place doesn?t make much, he said ? guests pay $5 to enter and can buy beer or bring their own liquor and buy mixers. The pool table costs 75 cents a game.

?I was going to get married once, even got a license,? he said, ?but we started getting into it, and the preacher never did register that license.?

He has farmed all his life. Now, on the adjacent corporate farm, he spends these days in overalls on a tractor, preparing fields for soybean planting.

Alfred Kemp, 67, who was helping serve drinks, said, ?I grew up here with Willie, chopping and picking cotton.? He thinks the club opened around 1961.

?When I was a boy, there was a juke joint every five miles,? he said. ?Now this is the only one around.?

In earlier, tenser days, the local white people seldom ventured to Po? Monkey?s, but in the last decade some have started dropping in.

Blues fans from Japan and Europe have also found their way down the unmarked gravel track off Highway 61, seeking an authentic juke joint experience as they tour Delta landmarks. But on the music front they may be disappointed. Although Mr. Seaberry said, ?I love all music as long as it?s the blues,? the line drawn in his club is at hip-hop culture. Hand-lettered signs say ?No Rap Music, Just Blues,? and ban baggy, falling-down pants.

The other night, the 38-year-old D.J. spun nary a B. B. King song, let alone the earlier blues that grew out of gospel, field chants and brilliant guitar innovations.

?Let?s hear some oldies,? the D.J. announced as he put on a Bobby Bland song from the 1960s and then a revved-up version of Marvin Gaye?s ?Let?s Get it On,? a 1970s hit.

?No one really wants to hear the old blues any more,? Mr. Kemp, Po? Monkey?s boyhood friend, said.

But he added, ?For almost 50 years, we?ve been having a good time here.?

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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