Fried catfish. A grotty string of Christmas lights. Thrift store furniture. Those images — and the wailing of inspired musicians — signal the fact you're in that incubator of indigenous American music, the juke joint.
Such clubs are explored in the Black Starz! original documentary Last of the Mississippi Jukes.
"Back when Europe was writing operas, blues was being written here," noted fan and juke co-owner Morgan Freeman. But alas, the genre is dying out.
The juke joint was an offshoot of an agricultural economy, patronized by low-wage field workers who needed to blow off steam after a five-and-a-half day work week of physical labor. They sprung up in buildings that used to serve as grocery stores or hotel basements. Their chief requirement: a location at the crossroads, literally or figuratively, of the lives of local African-Americans.
The documentary features performances from some of the juke world's lights, but their faces are unfamiliar to viewers who are not ardent fans of the genre. Other than actor Freeman, the only recognizable face is Chris Thomas King, who played the only actual musician in O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s Soggy Bottom Boys.
Performances in the Jukes
documentary not only explore the genre featured in the clubs, but also memorialize the life and times described by the interviewees — a nice touch.
The clubs may be reaching the end of their days, replaced by riverboat casinos patronized by the same low-wage earners who once made the jukes thrive. While this trend is killing the clubs, the musicians are drawn to the casinos' better wages.
But these corporate locales lack the camaraderie of the clubs, where the atmosphere allows up and comers to sit in and learn from the veterans.
Hope is rekindled in the "last chapter" of the film, which details the efforts of supporters to raise the $1 million necessary to stabilize the collapsing hotel building that houses the noted Subway Lounge in Jackson, Miss.
The documentary will appeal mostly to blues hounds, but those who invest the time will add to their musical and cultural knowledge.
Last of the Mississippi Jukes
debuts Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. on Black Starz!