by David Wilson
Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, an assemblage of old cypress planks and corrugated steel covered in hand-painted signs, sits on the edge of a cotton field outside of Merigold, Mississippi. Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, now in his mid-seventies, still farms the fields that surround it, and lives in a room in the back. He doesn’t own the fields, or the house, though on Thursday nights, when he opens its doors to the public for a $5 cover charge, it’s easy to think otherwise. On a suffocating July night, Seaberry, nearly six feet tall and solidly built, perched inside the door of his house. Dressed in suspenders, a magenta dress shirt, and a black tie, he greeted the guests who came to listen to blues and soul music — locals from Cleveland and Mound Bayou, and Teach-for-America workers, and teachers on a professional development trip — though he didn’t so much talk to his guests as nod approvingly while chewing on an unlit cigar.
Run by Seaberry since 1963, Po’ Monkey’s is one of the last of the Mississippi juke joints (derived from a Gullah word, “jook” or “joog,” meaning disorderly) that once peppered the cotton fields and plantations of the Delta region. These roadside barrelhouses offered rural blacks a place to drink, dance, hear live music, and gamble, at a time when they were forbidden from patronizing white establishments. Traditionally housed in shacks like Seaberry’s, juke joints flourished in the South before World War I, but the Great Migration began a process of significant decline. Seaberry is one of the last in a line of sharecroppers, and today much of the land in the Delta has been given over to agribusiness: Monsanto and Dupont signs mark the fields of corn and soybeans along Highway 61, while fast-food chains and Walmarts have pulled commerce away from downtowns and closer to the highways.
A few years ago, a Mississippi Blues Trail Marker — surrounded by a barbed-wire fence to ward off would-be thieves — was placed in front of Po’ Monkey’s Lounge. The Blues Trail, a state-sponsored attempt to drive tourism to the Delta, may be Mississippi’s last, best chance at revitalizing the area, one of the poorest in the country. In the early nineteen-nineties, casinos had been the great hope for renewal, especially in Tunica County, the northernmost part of the Delta. The casinos grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, but according to a Washington Post, despite the jobs they brought to the region, the revenue primarily benefited the white property owners — called “plantation owners” by County Administrator Michael Thompson — who leased their land to the casinos. Little of the windfall was used for career training or to recruit other industries to the area; poverty rates, while markedly improved, remained among the highest in the nation, and schools continued to be some of the lowest performing. Since the height of the casino boom, a number have shuttered, including the largest in Mississippi, Harrah’s, in 2014. Decades after the first casino arrived, Tunica offers “less opportunity than all but six other counties in the United States.”
In July of 2004, the state senate passed a bill establishing the Mississippi State Blues Commission. It was charged with developing “a plan to promote authentic Mississippi ‘blues’ music and ‘blues culture’ for purposes of economic development.” The commission created the Blues Trail, placing historical markers like the one at Po’ Monkey’s throughout the Delta, and began advertising the area’s blues heritage. Minimized in the commission’s campaign, which celebrates the “story of the people, places, themes and styles of blues music in Mississippi” is the very obvious point that, without slavery and its brutal legacy, there would be no Delta blues. In his book, Father of the Blues, composer and self-proclaimed “father of the blues” W.C. Handy describes them as:
the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and downtrodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s’ troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over.
The cultural appropriation of the Delta blues, which originated in black culture, by white performers like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, is as much a story of the blues as Charley Patton on Dockery Plantation or Robert Johnson at the crossroads where he was said to have sold his soul for the ability to play guitar. It continues in a different form in the demography of current blues fans — even though that is precisely what makes them attractive to state planners of the Blues Trail. A 2007 study by polling firm the Kitchens Group found that the modern blues fan tends to be older (eighty percent are between the ages of forty-one and forty-six); white (ninety percent); well-educated (seventy-four percent attended college or held advanced degrees); and wealthy (twenty-five percent make more than $75,000 per year).
At Po’ Monkey’s, I met two men from Norway who were drinking forty-ounce Budweisers, discussing towns they had seen and enthusing about the “authentic.” Earlier that day, they had visited Dockery Plantation, the famous crossroads, and the Blues Trailer marker in Greenwood for Johnson’s gravestone. Next, they planned to head to Clarksdale, where Muddy Waters grew up and Bessie Smith died. The town’s most popular attraction, Ground Zero Blues Club, is less than fifteen years old, though the name connotes Clarksdale’s deep historical cred in the development of early blues. The shabby-chic look of the building, owned by Clarksdale mayor Bill Luckett, Memphis music executive Howard Stovall, and Morgan Freeman, suggests a hard-earned legacy, but the weathered white-washed bricks, mismatched chairs, and graffiti-covered walls bring to mind a Hard Rock Café or a blues-themed restaurant at an amusement park. When I visited recently, the house band relied on covers of Tracy Chapman and ZZ Top to win over the middle-aged, out-of-town, and largely white audience.
Beyond Ground Zero’s back parking lot and across the railroad tracks that used to separate the white from the black parts of town is Red’s Lounge, a juke joint owned and operated for the past forty years by Red Paden. The 2014 Blues Trail edition of the magazine Living Blues reports, “many visitors initially bypass Red’s, thinking that the rundown building in which it’s housed is abandoned, while its ramshackle furnishings and buckets to catch rainwater might come as a culture shock.” But once inside, visitors might recognize the interior from the back cover of the same issue of Living Blues, where an ad for Visit Mississippi, the official webpage for state tourism, features elder bluesman Bobby Rush hunched over his guitar, playing for a sparse, mostly white and entirely middle-aged crowd. When Paden’s friend, Big Jack Johnson, passed away in 2011, Red planned a tribute show in his honor — Red’s Lounge was the bar Johnson would play when he passed through Clarksdale — but a competing tribute had been scheduled at Ground Zero, forcing Red to cancel his. When I asked him recently about Ground Zero, his feelings were clear: “Man, fuck that Hollywood motherfucker.”
Muddy Waters famously said, “I wanted to get out of Mississippi in the worst way. Go back? What I want to go back for?” In the Delta Blues Museum, though, a grown Waters sits, grinning happily inside of a perfect recreation of the very poverty he escaped. Across the street from Ground Zero, in an old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Depot, the log cabin that Muddy Waters lived in on Stovall Plantation has been preserved and reassembled, and inside sits a cartoonish sculpture of him dressed in a white suit and fedora, with a gold-top Gibson Les Paul on his lap. Once Seaberry is gone, so too will end the era of the rural juke joint. It’s easy to imagine Po’ Monkey’s — now the most photographed building in the Delta and one of the most popular tourist destinations — painstakingly taken down and reassembled in a museum someday. Perhaps a statue of a smiling Willie will be placed inside, presiding Gatsby-like over an imaginary party, the poverty and oppression that largely governed his life sanitized for a museum audience.
For now, though, the party continues at Po’ Monkey’s, Red’s, and handful of other places throughout the Delta, where tourism is their only economic hope. Little has changed in the decade since the Mississippi Blues Commission was founded. Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, summed up the current situation by saying, “you can’t out-poor the Delta.” During my last visit to Po’ Monkey’s, Darrell Moore, grandson of civil rights leader Amzie Moore, sold tamales out of the back of his truck, which was parked next to the Monkey’s Blues Trail Marker. “Trying to make a couple of bucks,” he said as he applied another layer of insect repellent to his arms and legs.
This piece originally stated that Teach for America employees were volunteers — they’re not — and that Po’ Monkey’s was in Sunflower County; it is Bolivar County. It also misstated the extent of casino closures in Tunica and the impact of those closures on the region. We regret the errors.