Keep the Beat Alive: Documentary Explores Waning Juke Joint Culture
Alumnus produces a film about the remaining blues clubs in the Mississippi Delta, encouraging the preservation of these important parts of American music history.
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Lou Bopp
Welcome to the Mississippi Delta, a fertile plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers rich in agrarian tradition and steeped in Southern mystique.
But the Delta is perhaps better known as a musical mecca. It’s where the blues was born and raised in the late 19th century before setting out to bring its particular brand of heartache to the world. Rock ’n’ roll, country, jazz – they’re all children of the blues.
|From left, “We Juke Up in Here!” co-producer Jeff Konkel, Willie "Po Monkey" Seaberry and co-producer Roger Stolle inside Po Monkey's Lounge juke joint near Merigold, Miss.|
This is the place where Robert Johnson, one of the foremost fathers of the blues and a Mississippi native son, was said to have shaken hands with the devil himself, trading his very soul in exchange for unrivaled mastery of the guitar.
Here you’ll also find juke joints, ramshackle parlors where Johnson and countless others after him plied their craft. In the old days, juke joints were where you’d go for a little moonshine, gambling and sonic catharsis so loud and soul-wrenching the night air would tremble with the blues. They were the kind of places where patrons would be almost as likely to get knocked down by a hard shot to the eye as to knock back a stiff shot of rye or two.
Times have changed, and so have juke joints. These days the clubs are smaller in number and a notch or two less rowdy, but they’re no less important to Mississippi’s blues heritage. Juke joints are a dwindling vestige of this purely American music’s genesis, and Roger Stolle wants to keep them alive.
“Traditionally, juke joints weren't exactly licensed businesses, and some of the owners and customers engaged in less-than-legal enterprises – including gambling and moonshining,” says Stolle, a Clarksdale, Miss., resident. “Juke joints are the original blues clubs – the proving grounds where an original American art form came into its own before spreading to the rest of the world. Today, these places are generally quite safe since the owners, customers and musicians tend to be older – with their crazy days of youth well behind them.”
Stolle graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English
and a journalism
certificate in 1989 from the University of Cincinnati’s McMicken College of Arts & Sciences. He’s now the proprietor of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in his adopted hometown of Clarksdale. Stolle’s shop on 252 Delta Ave. is an odd mixture of record store, art gallery and record/film label. Its main purpose is to promote Clarksdale as a unique destination for a crash course in Mississippi blues, and its latest project is the recently released “We Juke Up in Here!: Mississippi’s Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads” documentary film.
“My co-producer, Jeff Konkel, and I truly hope that viewers will see the movie, hear the soundtrack and head to the Mississippi Delta,” Stolle says. “This is a barely surviving, hidden culture.”
“Juke” traces the path of Stolle and Konkel as they chronicle what’s left of Mississippi’s mythical juke joint culture. Much of the film is told from the perspective of Red Paden, who has been running Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale for more than 30 years. The venerable blues and beer establishment has featured such well-known performers as Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Big George Brock, Hezekiah Early, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Anthony “Big A” Sherrod, Robert Lee “Lil’ Poochie” Watson, Elmo Williams and Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood.
“The fact that a more than century old institution such as the juke joint still exists over a decade into the 21st century is kind of ridiculous,” Stolle says. “That said, a good night in a Mississippi juke joint is like stepping into the pages of a history book. And it can change your life if you let it. Hopefully, the movie gives folks an idea of what it's like, but if we've really done our job properly, it will also motivate them to come and experience it for themselves.”
Stolle hopes his ability to tell a compelling story – a skill he learned in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences and honed over the past 20 years – will lure a new audience to the delta. It’s hard to imagine he won’t find success in this latest effort. Stolle is an author, designer, radio host, music producer, film maker, event organizer, businessman and incurable blues junkie all rolled into one lanky package. He says the liberal arts education he received in A&S has served him well in all his entrepreneurial endeavors – a diverse body of work that has earned him multiple Blues Foundation awards and nominations.
|From left, cinematographer Damien Blaylock, Roger Stolle, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and Jeff Konkel filming in front of Duck's Blue Front Cafe juke joint in Bentonia, Miss.|
In addition to giving him a solid intellectual foundation, Stolle says A&S kindled his commitment to lifelong learning and devotion to compassionate outreach. It also reinforced his philosophy that even through small acts, we all can become difference makers on a grand scale.
“We all have to start somewhere, and our learning never stops,” Stolle says. “A&S provided a wonderful starting point for my education, life and career. Several professors made impressions on me – not just through their teaching styles or knowledge but also through their enthusiasm and inspirational spirits. My time at UC furthered my belief that individuals can, indeed, make a difference in the world – one person or project at a time.”
A deluxe two-disc collection with a DVD featuring the documentary along with bonus features and a CD soundtrack with music from the film plus additional recordings by the featured artists was released in stores May 15. A full-color pullout booklet includes essays by Stolle and Konkel and photos of the featured musicians, juke joints and proprietors. The two-disc collection is available at www.wejukeupinhere.com
and public screenings of the film will be held in Mississippi and beyond throughout summer.
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