A long way down a dirt road, far off the highway, the little building stands on its own on the edge of the bean field. It’s mid afternoon. There is a huge bonfire threatening the trees. An older man walks slowly towards us. He extends his hand, “I’m Po’ Monkey”.
William Seaberry is 74 years old. He’s lived here his whole life. He’s happy to talk, but is a man of few words. “People want me to come visit ‘em, I say – I’m not getting on no airplane”. His family was sharecroppers, he’s the only one left out here. “This whole area used to have houses just like this” pointing to his place. He drags another pallet onto the fire, he’s cleaning up the yard for the party later that evening
The cabin is where he lives and where he been hosting a Thursday night juke joint ‘Po Monkey’s’ since 1958. In the old days it was live music, now it’s a DJ playing soul and R&B. “People come for a good time”. He has signs dictating the rules: ‘Not like this, or like this’ – next to pictures of a guy wearing a backwards hat, and another of pants hanging below the butt. No dope smoking, no rap music. “We don’t get no trouble” then he flashes a badge he has attached to his belt, as if to confirm his status as peacekeeper.
The inside is five decades of accumulation. Low ceilings, crooked floor, a jumble of chairs and tables, DJ booth in the back. The ceilings and the walls are covered with memories, recognitions, and patron’s claims to having been there. The place seems to have a life of its own that William is now simply witness to from 8pm to 2am once a week.
We leave him to his preparations. It all starts again later that evening.
Began the day in Leland, Mississippi looking for a cup of coffee. I asked a guy on the street. “Yo’ options are the laundramat, or the Kwikimart”. Great. We decided to wander around town a bit anyway. In the next block we found a place surprisingly, and aptly, called, The Coffee Shop.
The cafe has been open for five years, run by Betsy with sometimes help from her husband Bob. We sat down with hot cups of the ‘exclusive blues blend’. They were putting lunch on for the Daughters of the American Revolution, so things were a little busier than usual.
Bob introduced himself as a farmer, author, Vietnam vet, and professional storyteller. He was in his late sixties and had grown up on a cotton plantation outside of town. His was a different take on the ‘black’ situation. “My daddy took good care of the fifty families that lived on our property. I grew up with those kids – we played, hunted, and skinny-dipped together”. He made it sound idyllic. “Those folks had all that they needed – if they were outta coffee, well they could just come down to the commissary and get some!”
The economics were a system of credit – with the owner managing all the books.
Bob blames the end of the system on the Northerners, claiming the Federal Government imposed new wage laws in the ‘60’s. “We don’t say yankee, we say damn yankee.” There wasn’t much talk about Civil Rights.
The elderly Daughters started to arrive for their luncheon. Tables needed setting. Bob invited us to the old place anytime we wanted as they had turned the commissary into a guesthouse. “Not tonight though, I lead worship at church”. Bob and Betsy were lovely folks. They had long history here and saw things from their point of view.
Off the highway, around the corner, and across the railroad tracks, it was there on the right. A small standalone cinder block building painted blue with the faded sign out front. If I hadn’t read about it, I would have driven by without a second’s thought. The Blue Front Café.
We sat in the car a minute. There was nothing about the place in the middle of the day that offered an invitation inside. When we got up the courage and opened the door, there were no lights on, just the daylight shining through a couple of small windows. Three men were sitting around a barrel woodstove, one of whom was the owner Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes. They didn’t seem surprised to see us.
Jimmy’s had a few more than his fifteen minutes of fame – at least in the world of the blues here in Mississippi. He’s played festivals all over, including France. But now he only picks up the guitar if a tour bus shows up. “Locals don’ wanna hear my tunes”. I am sure the town had had its fill of the twelve bar.
We talked for a bit, but then he was called outside to fix some drainage issue in the building next door. Waiting for him I read the names and places of people who’d made a similar pilgrimage. Folks from all over the world had stopped by.
In its heyday the café had served the local cotton workers. Inside, on a Saturday night was where life was better. Music, dancing, a few drinks, whatever it took to both remember and forget.
Now it was a faded place marker, a roadside shrine to a difficult history. The dark times of oppression mingled with creativity and hope. I left with a new respect for the music.
I’m traveling in the Jungian shadow of the United States. What with the Indian Removal Act, slavery, the civil war, and segregation in its past, east of the Mississippi has gotta be the epicentre for shame and resentment. No wonder every once and awhile the country snaps, spends a trillion dollars, and goes beats the shit out of someone.
There are individual secrets, and then there are the collective ones of families, communities, and countries. Those things that aren’t talked about, swept under the corporate rug, and left for someone else to deal with. Yet, the garbage finds its way through generations, manifesting itself again and again.
Resolution may not be possible. It might simply be part of the human condition. Possibly, the best we can do is find a way through and do what we can to make it less painful for those who come next.
I wandered in the park in downtown Birmingham that was the place of the pivotal demonstration in the fight for civil rights. There was a statue of the four girls who were murdered in the church bombing and there were sculptures of the water cannons and the people who stood their ground. There was beauty and there was ugly.
Today we’ll head to one of the original Juke Joints in Mississippi. The sign out front very proudly displays the Coca Cola symbol. Prior to integration the patrons there weren’t allowed to drink coke – it was a ‘whites only’ beverage. Seriously.
Of course, Canada has its own shadow: land claims, residential schools, internment camps, racial discrimination, but I’ve become blind and deaf to it. I have learned to compensate – which is a euphemism for ‘not care’. But it’s hard to ignore the parallels down here.
I have no answers. I am humbled and chastened here on highway 61.
“This yo’ first time? Well, enjoy like you been doing it yo’ whole life” was the greeting offered in a friendly growl by 85 year old Henry ‘Gip’ Gipson as we walked into the shack in his backyard. It was long after dark, on the outskirts of town, in an area of Alabama where they see need for a police outpost to keep order. Narrow streets, no lights, and a sense that something could go wrong in a hurry for an outsider.
Gip’s Place has been hosting live blues since 1952. He got shut down as a business so now, instead, he invites his ‘friends’ to join him on Saturday evenings. Nothing for sale, bring your own. My buddy, a local, drove us down. He hadn’t been in ‘these parts’ for many years. Each turn created more doubt in his mind. Until we arrived.
A bonfire in an oil drum marked the spot. We paid our ‘donation’ for the band and headed inside. A brilliant mix of Christmas lights, concert posters and all manner of articles gathered over the sixty plus years. Mix of young and old, black and white, and a palatable, if incongruous, sense of welcome.
The evening began with Melissa, the MC, offering a prayer. A sincere giving of thanks for what we were about to receive. Then the three piece stepped up and rambled through a great set of old standards and a few originals. As good as they were, the band was simply an additional set piece for the short story we’d found ourselves in the midst of.
They took a break, but the music didn’t stop. A guy who’d been touring through the south came by to pay homage. He got his moment behind the microphone and offered up what he said was Gip’s favorite tune, Amazing Grace, blues style.
By the third verse he had the room with him, “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun”. Can I get an amen?
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