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Robert “Wolfman” Belfour playing at Red’s Lounge
Lou Bopp

More than a century after they first appeared, juke joints in the South are still offering up a rollicking good time.

“The blues ain’t got no color,” says Henry Gipson, known as Gip, the 80-something owner of Gip’s Place. This ramshackle juke joint is somewhere down the back roads of Bessemer, Ala., and even with good directions, it’s virtually impossible to find. I’d probably still be looking if I hadn’t almost crashed my rental car into a pickup truck whose driver took pity on me and led me here.

I’ve come to the South in search of the authentic juke joint, a place that always looks like a run-down shack where local musicians play the blues that grew out of the nearby cotton fields, where moonshine is still served because there’s no liquor license, and where the ambience is one big happy family even with people you’ve never met before. I’ve been told that Gip’s Place and Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Miss., are the last two surviving real-deal juke joints in America, both playing live blues, and I want to experience them before they disappear.
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Every Saturday night for the past 60 years, Gip, a gravedigger who owns several cemeteries, has hired blues bands to play in a little wooden, tin-roofed shack on his property. Great musicians, from Sam Lay (drummer for Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan) and James “T-Model” Ford to Bobby Rush and Willie King, have played here. I take a seat on a wobbly plastic chair next to the dance floor. Every inch of the garage-size shed is decorated with yellowed performance posters, photos of musicians and bands, and signs that say things like “Beer, Helping White Guys Dance Since 1842.” I look around — the place is a melting pot of men and women of all ages, sizes and races, all of us sweating in the stuffy, humid air.

Juke joints, or jukes (said to be from the Creole word joog, which means “rowdy” or “disorderly”), came into existence after emancipation as hangouts where plantation workers could gather on Saturday nights. There was nowhere else for African-Americans to go, so they came to listen to sizzling blues music, dance, eat and forget about their troubles. Friends met, shared their lives and made new friends. And because juke joints were on private property and always on the other side of the tracks, there was little chance the fun would be disrupted by the local sheriff. People found out about them only through word of mouth.

When workers moved off the plantations and into town, the juke joints followed. They remained important for both blues fans and performers and were a perfect alternative for those who couldn’t afford to go out to dinner or a movie. Here, they could bring their own moonshine and relax in peace.

In the early 1930s, coin-operated phonographs known as jukeboxes appeared. Listeners could choose from about eight different songs. Many bars and roadhouses installed the jukeboxes and stopped hiring live bands. But juke joints, distinguished by the fact that they played live blues, remained just as popular.

In 1952, Little Walter, the blues harmonica player in Muddy Waters’ band, recorded the song “Juke.” It was the first harmonica instrumental, a 12-bar blues shuffle and one of the biggest R&B records that year. Used as a noun, the word juke refers to music joints run by African-Americans, but Little Walter may have meant it as a verb, meaning to party.

Around this time, European tourists, crazy about American blues, visited the South and discovered the juke joints. Until then, few whites had ever set foot inside. When the juke owners saw that these blues pilgrims would gladly pay cash to drink moonshine and eat Southern barbecue, they welcomed them. These days, anybody can jump the tracks and head to the most rural tumbledown joint — because, just as Gip says, “the blues ain’t got no color.”