I expected my juke joint pilgrimage to feel like a peripatetic wake. Decades ago, blues luminaries like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson traveled across the South, guitar or harmonica in hand, from joint to joint for just enough money and food to get to the next one. In doing so they laid the foundation for nearly every form of popular American music that would follow.
But today, juke joints, once too numerous to count, have slipped away as their owners pass on. When I asked Roger Stolle, a founder of the Juke Joint Festival, held annually in Clarksdale, Miss., how many such places still exist, he replied: “With actual real, live blues music at least sporadically? Maybe five.”
Taking a route through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I set out to find some of these spots and discovered that where juke joints still exist, jubilance remains. Traditionally seen as dens of the devil’s music — jook is believed to originate from an African-derived Gullah word meaning disorderly — the surviving joints have become redefined as sanctuaries. Within their ramshackle walls, a sense of community and a love of soul-searching rhythms reign supreme.
On a crisp April day, I drove from Birmingham to Bessemer, about 20 minutes to the southwest. As I parked at Gip’s Place, a sprawl of do-it-yourself structures literally on the other side of the tracks, a car pulled beside me and a clearly relieved man in a fedora stepped out. “GPS doesn’t do much for you here, does it?” he said. “This place almost has to find you.”
While some other jukes have turned to DJs, Gip’s, opened in 1952, offers live music at his Saturday night “backyard parties.” Performers like T-Model Ford and Bobby Rush have played on the plywood stage, housed in a festive space about the size of a living room. When the dance floor heaves, the spot’s namesake, Henry Gipson — he gives his age as “between 80 and 100” and owns a cemetery, where he digs graves by day — takes his position at the stage’s edge, clapping his huge, weathered hands and shouting encouragement.
“The soul and spirit of Mr. Gip and his knowledge and memory of where the blues come from is what you feel here,” said Debbie Bond, a 30-year veteran of the Alabama blues scene and leader of that night’s band, Debbie Bond and the TruDats.
Fueled by the drained invigoration that follows a night “out jukin’,” the next day I drove southwest to Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, La., just north of Baton Rouge. After seeking out Lloyd Johnson Jr., aka Teddy, I asked him where he was born; the 67-year-old pointed toward the stage, where he said a bed once sat. As a guitar player began fingerpicking, patrons filed in amid mismatched booths and tables, a disco ball, Mardi Gras beads and a sign that read “Welcome: All Sizes, All Colors … All People.”
“You’ve got to have the want, the love, the upkeep, the will and the desire to keep it going,” said Johnson, perched at the bar. “After these are gone, children aren’t going to have any idea what a juke joint was. It’s important because it is the culture of America.”
The next morning, I traveled north through the alluvial plain wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers — to some the true home of the blues, having produced stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B.B. King. Today, their legacy forms the skeleton of the region’s tourism draw, and its backbone is Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway.