There was a time in the American South when juke joints were to be found at every dirt road crossing. Sometimes they were ramshackle houses or abandoned commercial buildings but often, they were small buildings assembled from whatever could be found. Rough cut boards, disassembled shipping crates, and rusting metal roofing were common.
Inside these places could be found fried catfish, smoked pork, cold beer, corn liquor and a couple of guys with cheap instruments pounding out the rhythms that we know today as the blues. If there wasn’t live music there’d be a jukebox playing records and thus the name, juke joints.
Today jukes are few and far apart and most don’t feature live music anymore. In Bentonia, MS there is the Blue Front Cafe owned by legendary bluesman, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. His parents started the business in 1948 and Jimmy keeps it going but rarely features live music. Bentonia is the birthplace of a distinct style of blues and every year a blues festival is held there to celebrate the area’s contribution to blues history.
Between Bentonia and Clarksdale, way out in the country, is Po’ Monkey’s. It’s another of those places that are made from any and everything. It was founded in the 1960s by Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry and over the years became a destination on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Several years ago Willie gave up on live music and went to just a jukebox. He passed in 2016 and I really don’t know what the future holds for this one of a few.
Saving the best for last is what probably is the last of the genuine juke joints, Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale. Owned by Red Paden it is everything you’ll ever read about jukes. It’s small, it’s makeshift, it has live music most nights, it’s raw, it gaudy it’s fun, and it’s not for the faint-hearted germophobe. Matter of fact, it is what the t-shirt says, “It is what it is!”
Red’s has live music most nights and don’t be surprised if you find half the crowd being from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other faraway places. The blues is loved throughout the world and the world comes to Clarksdale to see where it all began.
Speaking of the t-shirt, I purchased one in 2014 and have been amazed at how exclusively it is mistaken for a Cincinnati Reds t-shirt. People see me wearing it and say, “How about those Reds, that new pitcher is gonna take them all the way!” They’re always disappointed when I tell them its a blues club in Mississippi and that I don’t know crap about baseball. The exception came this year when I wore it on a Saturday at the Wheeling Heritage Blues Festival. Just about everyone who saw it gave me a thumbs up and mouthed “Red’s!” I even saw another guy wearing a black version.