An Interview with the Directors of ‘We Juke Up In Here!’ (screening at World Cafe Live on Saturday for XPN Music Film Fest)

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We Juke Up In Here!, the new documentary film by blues fans and historians Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel, returns to Philadelphia this Saturday as part of the XPN Music Film Festival. Stolle (the owner of Clarksdale, Mississippi’s Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art) and Konkel (the owner of the Broke & Hungry label) also co-directed the 2008 film, M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues. Much like that film, We Juke Up In Here! explores the rich history of the Delta blues. But this time the focus is specifically on the past, present and uncertain future of Mississippi’s juke joints. Though Stolle was extremely busy organizing the 10th Annual Juke Joint Festival – a four-day blues fest happening this weekend in Clarksdale – The Key was able to catch up with him and Konkel to talk about the new film.

The Key: How does We Juke Up In Here! compare with your last film, M For Mississippi?

Jeff Konkel: They’re both different sides of the same coin; they follow an interrelated, intertwined story. M For Mississippi was a road trip film shot in 2008. The idea was to take viewers through the Delta area and meet these various characters, mostly musicians, in the various places they haunt, including juke joints, front porches, their homes, house parties, and so on. And so we introduced viewers to about a dozen of the old guard—the traditional players in Mississippi playing the traditional style of blues. We Juke Up In Here! tells a similar story, but we focused on the juke joint owners, and those venues, which have been the traditional proving ground for these Delta musicians.

TK: What is a juke joint?

Roger Stolle: A juke joint is a real deal blues club. It’s an African-American owned, quasi-legal blues establishment that probably started out in the cotton plantations. As the music and the people moved into town—normally on the other side of the tracks—these clubs became the proving grounds for blues musicians. And it’s where it became something that would eventually be recorded and would move North, but this is the place where blues is the most natural.

It’s sort of like a “blues club,” but more like a house party, except the proprietor of a juke joint doesn’t really want you at his house. It’s run more like a party than a business, which means it may run all night long, if they can get away with it. Typically juke joints back in the day had a lot of gambling and moonshining happening—some of that still exists in some of the juke joints, but I won’t name names—and a lot of the customers were like family members. It’s like a bunch of friends going to someone’s house to see a band, and when the band finishes, they go and sit and talk with the rest of the audience.

TK: You both have referred to juke joints as proving grounds. What does that mean?

JK: It’s a proving ground for the local community: you better be able to play the songs and play them right. As Roger said, the people there are like family, and so they treat you like family. If you don’t come correct, they’ll let you know. If musicians can’t play the music the way the audience wants it, they’ll get booed off the stage. But then if the audience really likes a song, they’ll ask you to play it all night long. They say “Do it again! Do it again!” and they throw a dollar in the bucket. So the musicians had to be good in order to compete for a finite number of dollars. If you didn’t want to be out in the field doing back breaking labor, then you got good quick.

TK: So, definitions of success are more localized, as opposed to getting a record deal or touring nationally or getting radio time?

JK: Aboslutely. And that’s still the case, and it’s one of the things that keeps Mississippi blues so interesting. Each of the towns here has its own individual flavor of music. We work with an artist named Jimmy “Duck” Holmes from Bentonia, a town that I don’t think has ever had more than a couple hundred people. But Bentonia has a very unusual style—the guitars are tuned a bit differently, the singing style is different—and if you go ten miles away, you’ll hear a different style of music. So musicians were really trying to hit a particular type of music, and appeal to what the local customers wanted. We’re losing that in this culture all over. Pop radio is produced thousands of miles away; trying to appeal to what the people down the street want to hear is a lost art. And that’s why Mississippi juke joints are so vital.

Juke joints now are a snapshot of a time and place that is disappearing. The regional variances here that make it such an interesting tapestry of people and cultures are quickly diminishing as we become more of a homogenized culture. But you can still come experience these local differences that make Mississippi so captivating. Whether the music interests you, or you just want to meet very interesting people, this is a magical place.

TK: Roger, do you remember your first juke joint experience?

RS: Definitely. I was a blues fan long before I came to Mississippi. The music spoke to me, I can’t say why; I grew up in Ohio, but I became obsessed with it. But what changed my life, and the reason I live here today, was that I came here to hear the music and walk where my heroes walked, and I unexpectedly ended going to my first juke joint. That night changed my life; the lights came on for me. I had no clue this culture was still in existence. I didn’t understand then that the music is so connected with the culture. On a good night in a real Mississippi juke joint with a real Mississippi blues act performing, you get that experience. It’s like an Alan Lomax moment; it’s like walking into a history book. You can see the whole culture, and you realize that it’s all connected, and so much more than the music.

I went to this old juke joint that used to be a church, and there were paintings on the wall and moonshine and people brought barbecue and there were many old and young bluesman. It wasn’t like going to a concert or a festival. I was in someone’s living room that happened to have a whole lot of blues in it. To go to Red’s Lounge, in Clarksdale, on a Saturday night and see someone like Jimmy Holmes play, is a deep experience. The Mississippi blues experience is like an onion with so many layers. Everyone should experience it at least once in their lives.

TK: Who are some of the early juke joint musicians that eventually went on to become household names outside of the community?

JK: Many pre-war blues artists like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Son House lived and worked in the juke joints. That’s where they made their money; it wasn’t made on records. Then there are the guys who amplified and electrified the music, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. When they were living and working in the Delta, they played juke joints; they were raised in the jukes.

TK: Looking back at the history of the juke joints, was there a time when the scene was really thriving? And what factors determined that?

RS: I think they thrived up until the 1980s. Some of the music happening in the last-1970s started changing the flavor of the music, but you could still make a living there. There was still a local black audience, and the juke joints didn’t have to advertise or anything. You just threw the door open on a Saturday night—for instance, at Red’s Lounge, which we extensively profile in We Juke Up In Here!—and the band would start plyaing and the audience would just stroll in. You can’t do that now; now you have to market it more and go after tourists and global blues fans.

The true heyday would’ve been the time Jeff was just talking about, when Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House and the other rural bluesman were playing plantations and small towns. There were so many of them. If you talk to someone like Robert “Wolfman” Belfour, and he talks about playing open house parties, which were essentially juke joints. It was someone’s house that became a juke joint on the weekends, or maybe they had a secondary house on the property that would be used. The juke joints were thriving then.

TK: Can you each name a current musician on today’s juke joint scene whose music you find particularly compelling?

RS: The guy on the cover of our DVD is Anthony “Big A” Sherrod. He’s 29, and to me he’s the future of Clarksdale blues. He came up in all the Clarksdale bands over the past decades, and has played with so many old musicians, but he’s taking it in his own direction. He has the culture and the history behind him, and he’s extremely talented.

JK: There are so many great musicians, but keeping to guys in the film, Louis Arzo “Gearshifter” Youngblood. He’s an absolute delight of a human being and a captivating performer, whether with locals looking for soul blues or tourists looking for deep country blues, he can do it.

TK: What are some of the reasons juke joints have declined in recent years?

JK: There are many, but a lot of it comes down to changing tastes, and changing times. Just as the older, traditional blues performers have died off, so have the customers. There’s a lot of competition for entertainment now—television, movies—and in Mississippi, you have casinos that have really sucked a lot of business away from the juke joints. That theme comes up a lot in the movie: whenever we spoke with club owners or musicians, they pointed to the casinos as a reason why the juke joints have declined.

RS: Today, what’s happened, is that just like the culturally connected Mississippi blues musicians of a particular generation are starting to pass away, and the juke joint owners are passing away, so are the customers. Or mabye as they start getting older, perhaps they move back toward the church and away from the devil music of the juke joints. So these places either close down, or they become more like a bar, or they try to cater to a younger demographic. So now there’s a different kind of blues—Southern soul, R&B, soul blues—and typically that means a DJ instead of a live band. It’s a lot cheaper to have a DJ, and places like casinos have started to pull away the people and their expendable income. But the younger generations prefer to hear a DJ rather than a live interpretation of a song.

TK: Have you noticed the emergence of any hybrid blues musicians somehow integrating the old and the new in an interesting way?

RS: Before I answer that question, it makes me think of an interesting example. Here in Clarksdale, we have Delta Blues Room—which is just one street over from where I’m standing right now—which is basically a juke joint. It’s a cool, African-American owned blues club, and it’s a great place to see a band. But very rarely do they book live music, because they have a local audience that wants DJs. Interestingly, during the Blues Festival this coming weekend, there will be live blues there on Saturday night. And the complaint I get from the musicians that have played there in the past, is that the tourists love them and the locals are just waiting for the DJs to play.

But as far as mixing the old and the new, generalizing, most African-American kids listen to hip-hop now. But what you don’t really see is a mix between blues and hip-hop. I have seen outsiders come in and try to mix it, or make it happen, though. There was a film crew that came in to hire a local rapper playing with a blues band, and they positioned it in the film as if it was something naturally happening. That’s just not true.

JK: What you will see, though, is certain musicians adapting their music according to the audience they are playing for. For instance, an artist we profiled in our last film, the late Wesley Jefferson from Clarksdale, had a group that would typically change their sytle and set for the audience. When bands are playing the juke joints they might play harder blues, but when they play a festival stage, the music leans more toward standards. There’s a lot of adaptibility.

TK: In your opinion, will juke joints find a new way to thrive in the future?

JK: There will be juke joints in 20 years, just as there will be blues music. They won’t be the same as they are now, though. I’m not sure what they’ll look like. But I think juke joints are a lot like blues: they’ll find a way to evolve and thrive no matter what.

We Juke Up In Here! screens as part of the XPN Music Film Festival in conjunction with the Mississippi Blues Project on Saturday, April 13 at World Cafe Live. Admission is free, the event is hosted by XPN’s Johnny Meister, and the film will be followed by a performance by Mississippi blues musician Rory Block.