Juke Joints of Mississippi

Birney Imes,

(University Press of Mississippi)
They were the seedy places along the back roads that sold beer and set-ups --- in states with regressive liquor laws you could not buy booze over the counter so you brought your own, in a rumpled paper bag. The set-up was usually a cup, three ice cubes, and a bottle of Coca-Cola or Seven-Up.

The booths had been slashed, the chairs were rickety, the pool table had gouges and cigarette burns in the felt, and the table was canted so that you had to make a scientific calculation to take the angle of the dangle into account.

The bathroom smelled of piss, vomit, and those little white candies that they dropped in the urinals along with the butts. The floors were trashy with stuff you didn't really want to examine too closely.

The regulars were a lewd lot. There was usually a brawl that was going to take place, or had just taken place, or was going on upon your arrival. Half the ceiling lights were burnt out, dead flies hung months old from ribbons of fly-paper; moths circled the few lights that survived. The tables were scarred from a hundred burning butts, the juke box had three-year-old 45s that were so scratchy that the music could barely be heard above the hiss and poppings. The beer signs were the only lively, up-to-date accoutrement in the place.

Beer was a dime and set-ups were a quarter. The bar-keep didn't care how old you were as long as you could reach the money up onto the bar.

There were always hand-lettered signs on the wall. In the men's room, it was "We Aim To Please You Aim Too Please." Behind the bar it was something about not being able to get a beer in the bank, so why would you expect credit here. One in this volume reads

    Attention Please We Appreciate Your Business No Pot (double lines under the "o") Smoking OR Sale (double lines under the "a") in Here. Lucille Turner Thank You

This gorgeous volume of photographs is oversized and sports almost sixty shots taken at juke joints in the delta area of Mississippi. Opening this was not unlike Proust's madeleine. I was back there again, and as I turned the pages, I could smell the stale beer and piss, I could hear the Rock-Ola thrumming the wooden floor, I could feel the cigarette smoke burning my eyes, I could taste the ancient pickled pig's feet resting pinkly in the five-gallon jar on the counter, next to the punch-out board where for 25¢ you would stick in a metal spike, pull out a tiny piece of evanescent paper from underneath and learn that you had lost your chance to win a thousand dollars (but you got another free "you lose" punch).

Juke Joint made me pine for those hours that you and I spent in such places when we were young and rutting --- places where the music was off-key (often the 45s were not centered, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson went "wow-wow-wow") and the smoke was so thick you didn't even need to light up.

The juke joint ambiance was the best in the world for those of us who were fourteen or sixteen or eighteen, just getting out of the house, out for a night on the town, all the menace and thirst and lust running us so our glands would be popping, overflowing with the juices that were just beginning to control our days, surge through our bodies now filled with needs and wants and fantasies and angers all barely formulated, so weird and new and strange that we would do anything: get blind drunk on Seven-and-Seven, start a fight with some guy just because he looked funny at us, barf our guts out in the bathroom, pass out on the floor, face not far from that tacky residue under the urinals, where nothing and no one aimed to please.

--- S. W. Wentworth


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