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Juke Joints

by John Sledge

Juke joints. Anyone who has traveled the rural South has seen them by the roadside –- empty and forlorn-looking most of the time, but throbbing with light and energy on Saturday nights. The word “juke” is derived from the West African word “dyougou,” which means wicked or disorderly, an all too accurate designation for what sometimes transpires in these ramshackle places. Long fixtures on the landscape, juke joints, serving either mostly white or mostly black patrons, are nevertheless essentially terra incognita for the middle class. With their sagging floors, crumbling concrete block steps and frightful local nicknames (“the bucket of blood,” “the knife and gun club”), these spots are shunned by “respectable” folk, most of whom would quail to enter one even in broad daylight.

Happily, Birney Imes, a white photographer and newspaperman, was not deterred by the dismal reputations of these gathering spots. During the 1980s he roamed the Mississippi Delta getting to know black juke-joint owners and photographing their establishments in lush color. His acclaimed 1990 book Juke Joint: Photographs (Mississippi, paper, $35), has now been reprinted.

The photographs are introduced by writer Richard Ford, who minimizes any larger message that people might be tempted to read into these images. “Meaning, a concise social bottle-message,” he writes, “isn’t really the point, even though life’s the subject -– its clear residences, colorations and contingencies –- illumined and shaped by the photographer’s vision.” Rather, he declares, these pictures represent “what’s been seen, a combining of things observed, with the effects of light, the capabilities of a camera, the confidence of a plan, all fused with some ingredient of the moment.”

There are over 50 photographs in the book, shot with a 4 x 5 view camera on long exposure. Though many of the interiors are empty, others are peopled. Because of the long exposure times, human movement takes on an evocative blurred quality. As Ford so accurately observes, “Sweet longing drifts through these pictures like heat.”

Many of the interiors seem spare -– bare, cracked walls, rough plank floors and patched, beaded-board ceilings -– but upon closer inspection reveal a wealth of detail. The colors are vibrant, and many walls are decorated with splotches of paint and murals. Bars are festooned with tinsel, lights and balloons, and beer advertisements are tacked onto grubby bathroom doors. There is a great deal of signage, including calendars, political posters, menus and endless rules, the latter often scrawled on pieces of cardboard or poster paper and affixed to the walls with duct tape. “No. Dope. Please Crack Will. Kill. You. Look at your Buddy. He. Is. Dead You No,” reads one in The Out of Sight Café in Yazoo City. And chalked on a plywood wall over a pool table at the Freedom Village Juke in Washington County are the words that inspired singer Lucinda Williams -- “2Kool 2Be 4gotten.”

The sad residue of heavy drinking clings to these images like the smell of stale beer. The entrance of The Pink Pony Café in Darling is littered with bottles and crushed plastic cups. A man in a white tank top seems lost in thought as he draws on a cigarette while sitting on a red-topped table with a tall beer can between his legs. A man with a trucker cap rests his head on a Formica-topped table with an empty plastic cup at his elbow. A few beer cans and paper cups top a table with a peeling red-and-white checkered plastic covering. A pair of red booths frame a tattered tablecloth with whiskey bottles, one tipped over.

Furnishings are sparse and simple. Pool cues lean in corners, metal chairs, lounge chairs and couches, some battered and broken down, line walls, and a bare light bulb illumines a plain bathroom’s dirty toilet. The people communicate a range of emotions, from boredom and despair to good humor and quiet confidence. Smiling young men pose with pool cues, couples slump in their chairs, men idle in doorways, a pair of women pose alluringly by a jukebox.

In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, Imes said that he views photography as a way “to seek understanding, to do something that was taboo for me as a child.” In these remarkable images, he has penetrated a world unknown to many, and brought it to the fore in all its seediness and vibrancy.