I left New Orleans in search of a juke joint and followed the only directions I’d been given: “A cotton field four miles west of Merigold.” Six hours later I stood out front, surrounded by corn on all sides. My mistake—I failed to account for the crop rotation. I’d arrived in rural Mississippi.
My last time in the Magnolia State, I hitch hiked clear across it in two rides—one from an escaped mental patient and one from an elderly Native American woman. Both drove at least three hours out of their way to help, both had REDNECK stickers on the backs of their pickup trucks, and both told me the same thing. “If you’re here after dark, the pigs will bring you in for a week just for looking broke.” I walked away with a sense that this was a place where the most gracious people in America interacted resignedly with some of the country’s most long-standing institutional injustice. On this trip, I was spending time with an even more gracious people subjected to one of the gravest injustices in history. These were the descendants of Africans in the Mississippi Delta.
The troubles of African Americans did not end with slavery. After Emancipation, much of the Deep South adopted a sharecropping system that maintained black serfdom in an effectively feudal organizational structure. Still in effect when music anthropologist Alan Lomax traveled Tunica County in the 40s and 50s, it granted tenants use of an owner’s land in exchange for exorbitant portions of their crops. Financial panics, predatory land owners, and deep troughs in the price of cotton kept the black underclass functionally destitute. There was little real improvement in living conditions from the time of slavery through the mid-20th Century.
Landless, penniless, and subject to intensive labor, the tenant farmers of the Deep South would escape their brutal world off hours. With nowhere to go, they turned their homes into gathering places for a brief release in social life, alcohol, and—most significantly—music. A century ago, it was in these establishments that the country blues germinated before exploding unpredictably onto the center stage of popular culture worldwide. Today, in a one bedroom shanty nestled in the cotton fields of unincorporated Bolivar County, interested parties can participate weekly in the juke culture that inspired it—its ethic, its people, and the uncontainable joy they generated to combat an impossible world. This was Poor Monkey’s Lounge and today was the Poor Monkey’s birthday.
Nicknamed Poor Monkey from birth, Willie Seaberry moved to the house as a teenager in 1957 and quickly began inviting friends to drink and play music at night. Greater numbers attended until Poor Monkey’s Lounge became the de facto social club for the farmers and day laborers around town. Forty-five years later, Willie was turning 72, and the joint was faithfully opening up for another Thursday night. I steeled for the culture shock and barreled in.
I entered through the single door and my brain’s auto-pilot kicked in—find closest local girl, sit down, and chain smoke until something happens. Fortunately for me, the closest young lady happened to be a talker. Avoiding stares, I made for the back to nurse the 40s of Busch we’d purchased from a cooler in the kitchen. Once there, she filled me in on the joint’s history as DJ Doctor Tissue’s soul music calmed my nerves. Guests streamed in around us, loudly greeting each other, and it dawned on me that few of them actually knew each other. When I felt uncomfortable, I kept my head down. When they felt uncomfortable, they went and introduced themselves. Well I’ll be Goddamned, I thought.
The night took off when a guy named James declared himself my personal guide to Poor Monkey’s and started jumping me into the inner circle—in this case, his wife, and a table of matriarchs who had prepared food for everyone in the club. James had a character type I’d come across in Richmond and New Orleans before, but rarely encountered in either Northern society—a man whose mission in life was to include everyone and improve his standing by helping others however he could. “If you go far enough back, we’re all brothers,” he repeated to everyone around him, pouring them layers of compliments and cups of vodka. “Hey, Baby! You do something different? You’re looking younger this week!” “Oh shit! Hide your girls! This man is in the building!” The constant flow of good feeling appeared universal, and as the night went on, the effect was contagious.
Progressively, I made my way around the room adopting the one law I could deduce from the people around me: make people feel good and they’ll return the favor. Be louder. Laugh more. Build people up however you can. I thought back to the stolid denizens of the SWPL class in their distant, kitschy watering holes—quaking with fear and social anxiety, clutching Collins glasses to their chests and stuttering through conversations on quantitative easing and Lady Gaga minutiae. A faint chill ran through my heart.
No threat of that at Poor Monkey’s. I added up the contrasts that struck me most—the total comfort with the presence of others, the eagerness to interact, the sheer emotionality of communication—and the effect was undeniable. It was like being in love with 40 people at once. For a short while, the whole world opened its arms and it became clear that the juke joint frequented by downtrodden farmers—indeed, the concept of “juke” itself —provided them not only with entertainment, but with a kind of salvation. Long after their conditions improved, this life affirming social tradition persists.
Whether juke culture developed in response to the poverty thrust upon its people or persisted from the culture of their ancestors is beyond my qualification to judge. But I recalled the words of a Gullah historian I’d spoken to in South Carolina a year earlier, researching their communities in the coastal empire. “You call Mexicans Mexican and Italians Italian. Whether you know it or not, being white is being European. I don’t call myself black. I call myself African.” To do any less, he argued, delegitimized his customs and defined him not by his own culture but as an aberrant member of somebody else’s. In a place like Mississippi, where old ways linger for generations, his point holds some water.
I spent the rest of the night at Poor Monkey’s shooting the shit with its various patrons. Oddly enough, Willie himself seemed rather glum, possibly reflecting on another year gone by, the specter of Father Time looming in the foreground of his mind. The remaining hours blurred together as I played pool with James and danced with Wanda, the proprietor’s niece. The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on. Funny how shit comes together sometimes.