Celluloid juke joints transport viewers to primal experience
The Mississippi juke joint holds a special place in the popular imagination as a source of danger, mystique and authentic folk expression. For Memphis bluesman Richard Johnston, it served as his crossroads ‘— the mythical place from which his predecessor Robert Johnson emerged with stunning virtuosity on the guitar after fellow players told him to get lost.
Johnston, who has worked as the hired entertainment for two YES! Weekly parties, is the subject of a new documentary movie produced by the University of Alabama Center for Public Broadcasting called Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour. For a musician born in the mid-’60s who was living out of his van not many years ago, it’s somewhat surreal to see his career frozen in a documentary and shown at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum.
The Johnston doc, along with Constantine Manos’ 1993 short Gospel and Blues: A Spell in the Mississippi Delta, will kick off the museum’s ‘“Juke Joint July Film Series’” on Thursday (7/7). The films are being shown in conjunction with an exhibit, also entitled ‘“Juke Joint,’” of photographs taken by Birney Imes, the general manager of the Commerical Dispatch in Columbus, Miss.
Imes’ photographs mostly show the joints during the daytime when working-class folks are unwinding, avoiding the electrical scenes of blues performances that are the venues’ main draw. And yet the residue of intoxication, joy and turbulence from the Saturday night party hangs over the photographs like a wobbly hangover. The peeling wall paper, and especially the garish choice of colors of painted wood paneling ‘— a sickly hue of green-like faded turquoise or subterranean moss in one venue ‘— make these otherworldly places.
Crudely-drawn, handwritten signs captured in Imes’ photographs also tell a lot about occurrences in the joints when the party gets going good. One, shot inside the Ferry Club in Lowndes County, makes the following injunctions: ‘“No dope smoking! No gambling! No fighting! No beer sold after 12 o’clock! No one under 21! House rules, no exceptions!’” ‘— poetic and spare imagery that resurfaced as lyrics in Lucinda Williams’ song, ‘“2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten’” on her classic 1998 album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road.
Williams, who has acknowledged a debt to Imes, is quoted on the jacket of the aptly-titled book Juke Joint as saying about the photographer, ‘“Birney’s work is, in photography, what a good blues song is to me ‘— gritty, edgy in all its parallels.’”
Most people who have never set foot in a juke joint probably only understand the word ‘juke’ as a reference to the quaint machines that play 45 rpm records with the deposit of coins. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word is actually derived from the Gullah word ‘joog,’ which is probably in turn derived from a West African word meaning ‘“to live wickedly.’” It’s also strikingly similar to the word ‘jouk,’ which means ‘“a sudden, elusive movement’” and ‘“a place into which one may dart for shelter; a shelter from a blow, a storm, etc.’” ‘— all fitting meanings for a place designed to allow moments of transgression to people who live otherwise oppressed lives.
‘“A big part of a voodoo ceremony is dancing to relieve the stress,’” guitar player Johnston tells director Max Shores. ‘“I’m talking about in a good way ‘— to not be afraid to act like the animal you are.’” He goes on to say about Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint, where he received his blues education: ‘“Junior’s was a place people went to get transformed out of structured music to unstructured music.’”
The fact that Junior’s burned down after Johnston spent about two years fronting the house band only serves to burnish its mythical status in the film.
Hill Country Troubadour, then, alternates between scenes from The Lounge in Holly Springs ‘— a representation of the abiding blues tradition in the north Mississippi hill country ‘— and scenes from Johnston’s one-man-band gig in front of a theater on Memphis’ Beale Street ‘— with its hoards of tourists representing the wider appeal of the blues.
In both settings, Johnston’s primal drone is received by audiences that move as if possessed. On the street, where tourists snap pictures with digital cameras, as in the juke joint, audience members writhe on the ground, shake their bodies in place, or hop and spin in syncopated rhythm to the music.
The other documentary, Gospel and Blues, shows that this dancing is not just a personal expression spurred by an inspiring performer. The dancing comes out of a well-established tradition.
A somewhat academic presentation heavy on narration, the film makes the point that gospel and blues are closely related cultural forms ‘— both transcendent ‘— which divide between sacred and secular contexts.
Gospel and blues shows middle-aged women sitting at tables in a juke joint shaking and reaching their hands to the heavens as if trying to receive some divine blessing. Likewise, the dancing of the juke joint seems to seep back into the church in a scene where a man dances in a crouched position before the pulpit and the choir sings in a style reminiscent of shouting blues.
The series’ July 14 selection, You See Me Laughin’, will highlight the generation of blues players who preceded Johnston, musicians like Kimbrough, RL Burnside, T-Model Ford and Asie Payton who were farmers and laborers before they were entertainers and never left Mississippi.Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which shows July 21, is described as a quirky ‘“tour of the South, through a world of juke joints, moonlit baptisms, and small-town prisons,’” while Last of the Mississippi Jukes with Deep Blues explores the origins of the genre.
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