About five years ago there was a documentary released called The Last of the Mississippi Jukes that profiled Jackson’s Subway Lounge, a late night spot that was destroyed around the same time as the documentary was released. Just a couple years later we put up a Mississippi Blues Trail marker on the spot where the venue — which was housed in the historic Summers Hotel — once stood. It’s nice to acknowledge local history, but with a bit more effort the Subway might not have simply been history. Today Subway owner Jimmy King often hosts a “Subway night” at Schimmel’s Fine Dining in Jackson, and performs together with the Houserockers, who were the last house band at the Subway.
Today NMissCommentor has a post about the preservation of an over one-hundred year old venue in Mandeville, LA where early jazz greats performed. He notes the rarity of such structures, a point that’s been all too clear to me while working on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Over the last weeks I’ve been traveling a lot to blues sites around Mississippi, and thought I’d share some pictures and stories about what I’ve seen.
A couple of weeks ago Richard Ramsey, who runs the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival and the Howlin’ Wolf Museum in West Point, took me and photographer Ken Murphy on a tour of Wolf’s old stomping grounds in White Station and West Point, and it was sad, but fascinating, to see to the state of several of the old venues where Wolf would perform during his annual return visits from Chicago to his hometown. Richard would love to see the venue restored, and it appears to be in good enough shape that it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
The Melody Bar on Cottrell Street in West Point, photo by Scott Barretta
In 2007 a Mississippi Blues Trail marker was erected in front of the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, which has been operated by bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ family for over fifty years, and in the near future we’ll be erecting markers for the Queen of Hearts in Jackson, which Chellie B. Lewis has been operating since the early ’70s and which still features live blues every weekend, as well as the Po’ Monkey Lounge in Merigold, which Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry has run for decades. Ken Murphy and I stopped by to see Po’ Monkey’s a couple weeks ago, and we caught Seaberry just as he was about to leave for the store in Cleveland.
Traditionally Po’ Monkeys has offered a blues deejay on Thursday nights and, er, bluer fare on Monday nights, imported from Memphis. More recently the venue has also offered live music, usually arranged for out-of-town visitors by Delta State University. Less formally, frat boys from DSU have been venturing out to Po’ Monkeys for years, and according to Seaberry can often be found wrestling in the mud near the bayou across the dirt road from the joint.
Willie Seaberry in front of the Po' Monkey Lounge, photo by Scott Barretta
The best experience I had at a Mississippi juke recently, though, was on the evening on Willie King’s funeral three weekends ago. I first met and saw Willie perform in 1999 at Bettie’s Place, a converted house made mostly out of particle board off a gravel road in rural eastern Noxubee County, right on the Alabama line. In the wake of his CDs for Rooster Blues Willie began touring more outside the area, and at some point in the mid-2000s he stopped performing at Bettie’s Place. I never quite picked up on the reason why, but had the impression that the club had simply stopped existing as a venue.
At the funeral I heard from a number of Willie’s former band members that there was going to be a jam at Bettie’s later that evening, and immediately after Willie’s internment I headed over to the club. It was just about 5pm, and I didn’t suspect that music would start shortly. I was glad to find out that the bar was open and serving much needed cold beers, and was surprised to find a guitarist I didn’t recognize playing out at his car outside the club. He told me that he played at the club regularly on Sunday nights with musicians including Willie B. Smith and Willie Lee Halpert, who were respectively the bassist and second vocalist with Willie King’s Liberators back when I first started visiting Bettie’s Place. They also appear on the wonderful CD Freedom Creek.
DeKalb, MS bluesman Willie T. "Sweet Pea" Adams in front of Bettie's place. Adams worked for 30 years constructing guitars at the Peavey factory in Meridian. Photo by Scott Barretta
By 7pm Bettie’s Place was filled up with mostly locals, though there were also musicians who came from Tupelo, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa to pay tribute to Willie. First up was Willie Farmer of Duck Hill, MS, who arrived with Al White, the director of the Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, which often featured the Liberators; White also hired Willie King for blues education projects. Farmer plays some originals, but much of his repertoire is drawn from B.B. King and Albert King, and it was inspiring to see him close his set out with a cover of one of Willie King’s songs.
Next up, I think, were Ryan (16) and Kyle (14) Perry of the Tupelo group Homemade Jamz, who performed a dynamic set along with some local musicians — their nine-year-old drummer sister Taya stayed at home. I remember seeing Willie enjoying Homemade Jamz at several festivals, and how he gave them encouragement. There was nothing he enjoyed more than seeing young people take up the blues, and he would have been proud. Ryan and Kyle were with their dad Renaud, who’s a real blues lover, and I think it was the first time at a real juke joint for all of them.
Brothers Kyle (on bass) and Ryan (on guitar/vocals) Perry of Homemade Jamz at Bettie's Place, photo by Scott Barretta
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Another of the performers at Bettie’s was Birmingham George Conner, who was one of Willie King’s influences as a young man. Conner lived in Chicago for many years and recorded for Rev. Houston Harrington’s Atomic H label as “George Corner.” Two tracks by Conner are available on the CD reissue of the Delmark compilation “Chicago Ain’t Nothin’ But a Blues Band,” which collects recordings on Atomic H. [Thanks to Dick Shurman for correcting earlier (mis)information I posted.]
The label also featured the first recordings of Macon, Mississippi native Eddy Clearwater [Harrington], who was Rev. Harrington’s nephew. Clearwater was honored, along with Willie King and Carey Bell, on the “Black Prairie Blues” MS Blues Trail marker last year]. At Bettie’s Place Conner was joined by musicians including harmonica player Jock Webb of (I think) Birmingham, who often played with Willie.
Jock Webb and Birmingham George Conner at Bettie's Place, photo by Scott Barretta
Many other artists got up to play, but I was most inspired by seeing the members of King’s Liberators perform several sets. Drummer Willie James, who worked with Willie King for 36 years, acted as the informal emcee, shouting out testimonials to King between sets, and contributing his ragged but right rhythms to versions of Willie’s songs. The band was fronted by vocalist Willie Lee Halpert and featured the bass and guitar playing of Aaron “Hard Head” Hodge, who is now the president of Willie King’s non-profit Rural Members Association, which is dedicated to teaching young people old skills such as farming, canning, quilt making, and playing the blues.
Vocalist Willie Lee Halpert of the Liberators and dancers at Bettie's Place, photo by Scott Barretta
Willie James Williams and Aaron "Hard Head" Hodge of the Liberators. Behind them to left is guitarist Joe Hudson of Boyd, AL, who played with the Liberators. Photo by Scott Barretta
Blues writer Brinda Willis and her twin sister Linda Walker (Which is which?!) at Bettie's Place, photo by Scott Barretta
There were many other performers who took to the stage that evening, and music ran pretty continuously from about 7 to 11 PM. Even if I had wanted to leave I couldn’t, as there were at least several cars double parked behind me, and those folks weren’t leaving until the music was done. Willie James and the other musicians promised they would keep the music going at Bettie’s Place on Sunday nights in Willie’s honor, and I hope that they can do so.
The following Saturday Willie James, Hard Head, Joe Hudson and Willie Lee Halpert traveled over to Grenada for a celebration of Willie King at Phil’s Place, an informal venue behind Phil’s house, and were joined on stage by Jackson bluesmen Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood and Ben Payton, Delta drummer/guitarist and artist Bobby Whalen (he painted B.B. King murals in Indianola), Little Willie Farmer, and Memphis by way of Italy bassist Tony “Gypsy” Negri. The music was inspired, and I promised to do what I could to keep the Liberators going. I’ll certainly use this space to advertise any future gigs.