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Juke joint (or jook joint) is the vernacular term for an informal establishment featuring music, dancing, gambling, and drinking, primarily operated by African American people in the southeastern United States. The term "juke" is believed to derive from the Gullah word joog, meaning rowdy or disorderly. A juke joint may also be called a "barrelhouse". An alternative etymology of the word Juke, which native Southerners always pronounce "JUK", is the Irish Gaelic word "deoch" pronounced "JUK", and meaning "a drink". The Irish are famous for establishing places to drink, often illicit moonshine, and enjoying some "craic", pronounced "CRACK" - meaning talking, drinking and dancing in a social setting. The Irish were also the original slaves in the US South, and so these customs probably were adopted by the African slaves from their Irish counterparts.
Classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads, catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle buildings or private houses, juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons, or providing cheap room and board.
The origins of juke joints may be the community rooms that were occasionally built on plantations to provide a place for blacks to socialize during slavery. This practice spread to the work camps such as sawmills, turpentine camps and lumber companies in the early twentieth century, which built barrel-houses and chock-houses to be used for drinking and gambling. Although uncommon in populated areas, such places were often seen as necessary to attract workers to sparsely populated areas lacking bars and other social outlets. As well, much like "on-base" Officer's Clubs, such "Company"-owned joints allowed managers to keep an eye on their underlings; it also ensured that the employees' pay was coming back to the Company. Constructed simply like a field hand's "shotgun"-style dwelling, these may have been the first juke joints. During the prohibition in the United States it became common to see squalid independent juke joints at highway crossings and railroad stops. These were almost never called "juke joint"; but rather were named such as "Lone Star" or "Colored Cafe". They were often open only on weekends. Juke joints may represent the first "private space" for blacks. Paul Oliver writes that juke joints were "the last retreat, the final bastion for black people who want to get away from whites, and the pressures of the day."
Jooks occurred on plantations, and classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads began to emerge after the Emancipation Proclamation. Dancing was done to so-called jigs and reels (terms routinely used for any dance that struck respectable people as wild or unrestrained, whether Irish or African), to music now thought of as "old-timey" or "hillbilly". Through the first years of the twentieth century, the fiddle was by far the most popular instrument among both white and black Southern musicians. The banjo was popular before guitars became widely available in the 1890s.
Juke joint music began with the black folk rags ("ragtime stuff" and "folk rags" are a catch-all term for older African American music) and then the boogie woogie dance music of the late 1880s or 1890s and became the blues, barrel house, and the slow drag dance music of the rural south (moving to Chicago's black rent-party circuit in the Great Migration) often "raucous and raunchy" good time secular music. Dance forms evolved from ring dances to solo and couples dancing. Some blacks, those seeking white approval, opposed the amorality of the raucous "jook crowd".
Until the advent of the Victrola, and juke boxes, at least one musician was required to provide music for dancing, but as many as three musicians would play in jooks. In larger cities like New Orleans, string trios or quartets were hired.
"So far as what was called blues, that didn't come till 'round 1917...What we had in my coming up days was music for dancing, and it was of all different sorts" - Mance Lipscomb, Texas guitarist and singer. Musicians of that time had a degree of versatility that is now extremely rare, and styles were not yet codified and there was a good deal of shading and overlap.
Paul Oliver, who tells of a visit to a juke joint outside of Clarksdale some forty years ago and was the only white man there, describes juke joints of the time as, "unappealing, decrepit, crumbling shacks" that were often so small that only a few couples could Hully Gully. The outside yard was filled with trash. Inside they are "dusty" and "squalid" with the walls "stained to shoulder height".
In 1934, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston made the first formal attempt to describe the juke joint and its cultural role, writing that "the Negro jooks...are primitive rural counterparts of resort night clubs, where turpentine workers take their evening relaxation deep in the pine forests." Jukes figure prominently in her studies of African American folklore.
Early figures of blues, including Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, and countless others, traveled the juke joint circuit, scraping out a living on tips and free meals. While musicians played, patrons enjoyed dances with long heritages in some parts of the African American community, such as the Slow Drag.
Many of the early and historic juke joints have closed over the past decades for a number of socio-economic reasons. Po' Monkey's is one of the last remaining rural jukes in the Mississippi Delta. It began as a renovated sharecropper's shack which was probably originally built in the 1920s or so. Po' Monkey's features live blues music and "Family Night" on Thursday nights. Still run by Po' Monkey, the popular juke joint has been featured in national and international articles about the Delta. The Blue Front Cafe is a historic old juke joint made of cinder blocks in Bentonia, Mississippi which played an important role in the development of the blues in Mississippi. It was still in operation as of 2006. Smitty's Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is also still operating as of last notice.
Juke joints are still a strong part of African American culture in Deep South locations such as the Mississippi Delta where blues is still the mainstay, although it is now more often featured by disc jockeys and on jukeboxes than by live bands.
Peter Guralnick describes many Chicago juke joints as corner bars that go by an address and have no name. The musicians and singers perform unannounced and without microphones, ending with little if any applause. Guralnick tells of a visit to a specific juke joint, Florence's, in 1977. In stark contrast to the streets outside, Florence's is dim, and smoke-filled with the music more of an accompaniment to the "various business" being conducted than the focus of the patrons' attention. The "sheer funk of all those closely-packed-together bodies, the shouts and laughter" draws his attention. He describes the security measures and buzzer at the door, there having been a shooting there a few years ago. On this particular day Magic Slim was performing with his band, the Teardrops, on a bandstand barely big enough to hold the band.
Katrina Hazzard-Gordon writes that "[t]he honky-tonk was the first urban manifestation of the jook, and the name itself later became synonymous with a style of music. Related to the classic blues in tonal structure, honky-tonk has a tempo that is slightly stepped up. It is rhythmically suited for many African-American dances…", but cites no reference.
The low-down allure of juke joints has inspired many large-scale commercial establishments, including the House of Blues chain, the 308 Blues Club and Cafe in Indianola, Mississippi and the Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Traditional juke joints, however, are under pressure from other forms of entertainment, including casinos. Many get more business from tourists in search of an authentic blues experience than local patrons. The annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale was founded in 2004 to foster appreciation for local jukes and promote their preservation.
Jukes have been celebrated in photos and film. Marion Post Wolcott's images of the dilapidated buildings and the pulsing life they contained are among the most famous documentary images of the era.