Steppin’ Out into
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography Courtesy of Roger Stolle and Lou Bopp
Roger Stolle’s new book celebrates Mississippi’s juke joint past with colorful characters and interesting stories.
Every day there’s news about how time is marching forward and leaving a trail of obsolescence in its wake. Many of the things being consigned to history, like telephone land lines, won’t be missed. It’s heartbreaking though to realize that a longtime and significant contributor to Southern culture is currently vanishing right before our eyes. The juke joint is dying.
To be sure, “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential,” Roger Stolle’s immersion into the juke joint scene in the Magnolia State, is not an obituary or a sob story. More like a celebration, the book is a fast-and-fun read peppered with stories about and commentary from a host of colorful characters with names like “Dr. Feelgood” Potts, Mary Ann “Action” Jackson, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour and Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. If juke joints could write their memoir it would come out something like this.
Stolle’s passion for the blues and juke joint culture allows him to write with expertise in “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential” about things like the 2016 demise of the Merigold, Miss., juke joint Po Monkey’s, a place he discovered some 20-odd-years prior. Located in a former sharecropper’s shack in the middle of a cotton field and with a history as a juke since 1963, Po Monkey’s shuttered after its owner Willie Seaberry passed away.
Originally from Ohio, Stolle now lives in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the historic epicenter of Southern blues and home to the infamous “crossroads” that Robert Johnson sang about. And while he travels the state regularly in search of blues and juke joint lore, Stolle helps to keep the blues alive with his Clarksdale-based store, Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art.
“I moved here in 2002 not to open a retail store; I moved here to be boots on the ground that could work with local musicians and venue owners to put the music on a schedule and then promote it,” Stolle says, noting that at the time there was no live music at all in Clarksdale. In big part due to his efforts, Clarksdale now has live music every night as well as a handful of blues festivals.
The next best thing to a juke joint, Cat Head has seen performances by a long list of local juke joint luminaries like James “T-Model” Ford, Robert Kimbrough Sr., “Big” George Brock, Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, Wesley “Junebug” Jefferson and Cedric Burnside, most of whom are also among the personalities covered in “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential.” Stolle notes that Shaw, Mississippi, native David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who died in 2011, gave his final public performance at Cat Head.
Superstars and celebrities have come to check out Cat Head too. “I used to keep a list of celebrities, but it got misplaced,” Stolle says. “The ones I remember offhand include Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Alex Chilton (The Box Tops, Big Star), Tom Waits, Dan Akroyd, Ozzy Osbourne, Morgan Freeman, Jessica Lange, Jools Holland, Caroline Kennedy, Ty Pennington, and Andrew Zimmern. Ozzy just looked around a bit and then used the bathroom.
“My favorite was probably [Caroline] Kennedy since she was so excited to be here and she took the time to talk to my other customers. Very down to earth and friendly,” he remembers. “Her uncle Bobby visited Clarksdale during his ‘Southern poverty tour’ in 1967.”
Even though juke joint culture is fading fast, “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential” shares that there are still places where blues fans and the just plain curious can have the authentic experience of dancing and drinking the night away in a ramshackle venue.
“Traditional African American juke joints are definitely part of a fading history,” says Stolle. “We still have a handful of authentic jukes in the region that offer at least occasional music, but not many. The most reliable is Red’s Lounge here in Clarksdale where Red Paden books blues every Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. Recently, Henry “Gip” Gipson, owner of Gip’s Place in Bessemer, Alabama, passed away at possibly 99-years old. Oftentimes the juke joint proprietor is half the reason folks, especially international tourists, visit.”
Stolle also notes that while juke joint culture is nearing the end of the line, it’s not time to put the nails in the coffin just yet. “Musician Sean ‘Bad’ Apple recently bought a little old juke called Club 2000 in Clarksdale, and he plans to open it in spring 2020,” Stolle says. “He’s the first to tell you that he’s a white guy from Pennsylvania, so the best he can do is give it the look, feel, and music of a real-deal juke joint. It should be pretty great though.”
A fine primer for those interested in juke joint culture that’s loaded with photos by noted blues photographer Lou Bopp, “Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential” is available in paperback from The History Press.