I expected my juke joint pilgrimage to feel like a peripatetic wake. Decades ago, blues luminaries like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson traveled across the South, guitar or harmonica in hand, from joint to joint for just enough money and food to get to the next one. In doing so they laid the foundation for nearly every form of popular American music that would follow.
But today, juke joints, once too numerous to count, have slipped away as their owners pass on. When I asked Roger Stolle, a founder of the Juke Joint Festival, held annually in Clarksdale, Miss., how many such places still exist, he replied: “With actual real, live blues music at least sporadically? Maybe five.”
Taking a route through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, I set out to find some of these spots and discovered that where juke joints still exist jubilance remains. Traditionally seen as dens of the devil’s music — jook is believed to originate from an African-derived Gullah word meaning disorderly — the surviving joints have become redefined as sanctuaries. Within their ramshackle walls, a sense of community and a love of soul-searching rhythms reign supreme.
On a crisp April day, I drove from Birmingham to Bessemer, about 20 minutes to the southwest. As I parked at Gip’s Place, a sprawl of do-it-yourself structures literally on the other side of the tracks, a car pulled beside me and a clearly relieved man in a fedora stepped out. “GPS doesn’t do much for you here, does it?” he said. “This place almost has to find you.” (And it could, until recently. The Bessemer city government has just shut down the club, citing permit and zoning violations; at press time, the two sides hadn’t resolved the issue.)
While some other jukes have turned to D.J.’s, Gip’s, opened in 1952, offers only live music. Performers like T-Model Ford and Bobby Rush have played on the plywood stage, housed in a festive space about the size of a living room. When the dance floor heaves, the spot’s namesake, Henry Gipson — he gives his age as “between 80 and 100” and owns a cemetery, where he digs graves by day — takes his position at the stage’s edge, clapping his huge, weathered hands and shouting encouragement.
“The soul and spirit of Mr. Gip and his knowledge and memory of where the blues come from is what you feel here,” said Debbie Bond, a 30-year veteran of the Alabama blues scene and leader of that night’s band, Debbie Bond and the TruDats.
Fueled by the drained invigoration that follows a night “out jukin’,” the next day I drove southwest to Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, La., just north of Baton Rouge. After seeking out Lloyd Johnson Jr., a k a Teddy, I asked him where he was born; the 67-year-old pointed toward the stage, where he said a bed once sat. As a guitar player began fingerpicking, patrons filed in amid mismatched booths and tables, a disco ball, Mardi Gras beads and a sign that read “Welcome: All Sizes, All Colors ...All People.”
“You’ve got to have the want, the love, the upkeep, the will, and the desire to keep it going,” said Mr. Johnson, perched at the bar. “After these are gone, children aren’t going to have any idea what a juke joint was. It’s important because it is the culture of America.”
The next morning, I traveled north through the alluvial plain wedged between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers — to some the true home of the blues, having produced stalwarts like Muddy Waters, Elmore James and B. B. King. Today, their legacy forms the skeleton of the region’s tourism draw, and its backbone is Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway.
Juke aficionados from around the world seek out Po’ Monkey’s in Merigold, Miss., just off 61, open Thursdays only. The owner, Willie Seaberry, 73 — he responds to either Po’ or Monkey — has run the joint since he was 16. During the day, he still farms the fields that surround the building, an Escher-like layering of tin, bricks and rough-hewed planks.
“There used to be juke joints all around here,” Mr. Seaberry said as we stood outside, watching the sun set. “Well, a lot of young folks didn’t know how to act, and they just had to close them down.” He looked out across an infinite Delta horizon. “But all my people like the blues.”
At dusk, we followed his people into the joint for $3 canned beers under black-plastic ceilings adorned with a sea of stuffed monkeys and Christmas lights. As the D.J. found his groove with a soul number by the band Chairmen of the Board, a group of regulars arrived, tilting the crowd from majority white to black. Strangers sat at community tables and danced with one another’s dates; the clubhouse mood never changed.
“Po’ Monkey’s is like what the Delta is at its best,” Will Jacks, a photographer from nearby Cleveland, Miss., told me. “It’s more than just a place to have some beer and relax for a night. There’s this magic that happens between people.”
If the Delta is the body of the blues, Clarksdale, 30 minutes north of Merigold along the Sunflower River, is the heart. Markers pay homage to hometown heroes like John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke. And this town of 18,000 is the site of the famous “crossroads,” where Highways 61 and 49 meet and where Robert Johnson legendarily sold his soul.
It was the eve of the 10th Juke Joint Festival, and Clarksdale was already humming with the string-bending melodies of impromptu curbside performances. Hundreds of blues fans milled about with their programs to locate the fest’s various music locations. About 7,000 fans would eventually descend on the compact grid of streets to witness longtime bluesmen — some in their 70s and 80s — as well as a new generation of standard-bearers.
The next day, evidence of Clarksdale’s singular focus was everywhere. At one end of town, on the grassy front quad of the Delta Blues Museum, teenagers, college students and families lounged in the sun and listened to live bands. In the town’s center, the esteemed guitarist and singer Robert (Wolfman) Belfour, 72, in a three-piece suit and Panama hat, was finishing a set. Across the street, Marcus Cartwright Jr., 19, who goes by Mookie, also wearing a Panama hat, sat on an amp on the sidewalk and drew bigger crowds with every old-school song he played.
“One of the concepts of the Juke Joint Festival is to highlight the fact that we have these incredible venues that really only exist in one part of the world,” Mr. Stolle said. He is apparently bullish on the state of the festival: next year’s is already scheduled for April 10 to 13. “It gives you that whole sense of the fact that it’s not just a genre of music — it’s a living, breathing culture that happens to have a voice.”
The most obvious bricks-and-mortar example of that commitment to redirect the juke-joint-culture trajectory is the Ground Zero Blues Club. The relative newcomer of the group, it was opened in 2001 by the actor Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett, a local lawyer, in a converted cotton warehouse, with all the gritty trappings of a great juke: graffitied walls, strings of lights and a down-home front porch with couches. Live acts perform Wednesday to Saturday.
But if you ask musicians and locals to name the best joint in town to experience music, nearly all will send you to Red’s Lounge, which stages blues-only acts Friday to Sunday, run by the beloved and cantankerous Red Paden, 60, a juke owner for 40 years. Inside, space is tight, the ceiling low, and the music as well connected to the original bluesmen as the room’s red-neon glow is seductive.
I’d saved Red’s for last. Apparently so had everyone else — the place was packed. Seated in a folding chair on the floor-level stage, Mr. Belfour moaned, tapped his foot and played his twangy country-blues style — proving why the blues and juke joints are not yet ready for a museum’s glass case.
Hours later — around 2 a.m., as the night’s last band was winding down — Mr. Paden came out from behind the bar, waving his arms through the haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled revelry. “That’s it, everybody,” he said. “I’m tired.”
A blog entry from December 19, 2012 on Eateries, Dives, and Juke Joints
One of the Baton Rouge area’s best-kept secrets, Teddy’s Juke Joint, is making an internationally renowned mark on the local music scene. The Juke Joint, located on Old Scenic Highway, is no ordinary venue. It exposes students and the Baton Rouge community to the world’s top musicians and enables an interactive, enlightening experience. It’s a place where all patrons, from rookies to experienced musicians, can get up on stage alongside internationally acclaimed artists and work what they’ve got, guaranteeing even the most unfamiliar of customers a true understanding of blues.
Owner Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson Jr. said everyone is welcome to come out and learn to play blues. “I had a young man from LSU who played violin and came and learned to play blues,” he said. “Anyone can do it. If they play rock and they want to be exposed to something different, they can come out here and learn to play blues.”
Though Johnson said customers shouldn’t expect classroom-like lessons, the musicians he brings to the venue are more than willing to help out newcomers, especially Dixie Taylor, who plays in the Dixie Rose Acoustic Circle and open mic on Wednesday nights.
“Most of the musicians that come here will give you different pointers,” he said. “But when we have the acoustic circle and open mic, Dixie’ll take time and try to help [new musicians] out as much as she can.”
Johnson said he is in touch with more than 1,000 artists from across the globe and that just by observing, visitors walk away from the haunt with a better understanding of blues.
“I have people from all over the world that come and play here,” he said. “People can learn a whole lot just by coming out and being exposed, observing in person.”
Many of the performers who come out to the venue have played with big-name artists and are award-winning artists themselves, Johnson said. “Just to name a couple of people who play here – I got Gregg Wright, who played with Michael Jackson on the Victory Tour,” he said. “Kenny Neal – he’s the first man to put blues on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and he’s played in every Jazz Fest except one since it started up.”
Alex V. Cook, Baton Rouge author and journalist, is including Teddy’s Juke Joint in his upcoming book published through LSU Press. “I’m writing an anecdotal type of guide book to Louisiana juke joints, dance halls and honkey tonks,” he said. “Teddy’s actually inspired me to write the book.” Cook said the juke joint is the real deal, adding: “Blues keeps itself alive through this place because it’s the legitimate thing,” he said. “Teddy was actually born in the house, and it’s one of the only real juke joints left in the area since Tabby’s Blues Box closed.” Along with providing a sense of blues music tradition, the haunt is also the quintessential vision of a classic juke joint, Cook said. “If you’ve got any concept of what a juke joint is in your mind, that’s what it looks like,” he said. “It’s just a good time. It’s one of my favorite bars ever.”
Nancy Johnson, the owner’s wife, said she’s proud of her husband for expanding the musical horizons of all the venue’s visitors. “I think what he’s doing is absolutely fantastic,” she said. “It’s been a terrific ride for me. He’s dedicated, he’s a good man, he enjoys the lessons, he really helps everybody and he does a great job doing it, too.”
Nancy Johnson said her husband’s dedication comes from his heritage. “It’s in his roots,” she said. “He’s always been involved in music ever since he was a little boy, and once he opened this bar, it was just a natural course for him.” She said students should come to Teddy’s Juke Joint because the musicians give individual attention to all interested patrons. “Teddy has fantastic people come out here,” she said. “They’re not just good musicians – they’re good folks.”
Only thing rarer than a visit from the Advocate to the Juke Joint is a visit to the Juke Joint from the Times-Picayune. This time being led around by Alex V. Cook.Backwoods club preserves the culture
- Alison Fensterstock (May 1, 2012)
We could have taken the freeway almost all the way to Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, but author Alex V. Cook directed us instead straight through North Baton Rouge.
"It's the scenic route," he explained.
Driving down Plank Road parallel to both I-10 and the old Highway 61 on Easter Sunday, it was scenic indeed. We passed seafood markets and barbecue joints and bright-painted cinderblock nightclubs with names like Raggs, Romeo’s and the Boss Lady Lounge.“It’s the scenic route,” he explained.
Beside us on the road in the late afternoon were a notable number of classic cars, with candy-colored paint jobs and elaborate rims — cruising, maybe, till the Boss Lady decided to open up for business.
Cook’s new book, “Louisiana Saturday Night: Lookin’ For a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks and Dance Halls” (LSU Press) is all about the scenic route. A frequent contributor to publications such as Offbeat, the Oxford American and Baton Rouge’s 225 magazine, Cook pulled the book together from a series of columns for the magazine Country Roads, which celebrates the gems of regional American culture that can still be found far off the beaten pathways.
“Louisiana Saturday Night,” part guidebook, part travel journal, compiles Cook’s observations on several dozen mostly unmapped South Louisiana hot spots. Flipping through descriptions of a Henderson dance hall with airboats in the parking lot or a “rustic swamp bar” in Pierre Part where swamp-pop legend Don Rich still holds court each Wednesday night, it’s hard not to jump in the car.
Which is how we wound up at Teddy’s with Cook as our drinking buddy and guide, driving way down past the edge of Baton Rouge, past the jail and the refineries, just off a lonely two-lane stretch of the Old Scenic Highway.
You can’t see Teddy’s Juke Joint from the road. You’ve got to look out for the smallish white sign – also festooned with a drawing of a bear – that marks the turnoff into a grassy clearing that reveals the club, a couple of out buildings, a covered patio with picnic tables and buckets for cigarette butts and at least half a dozen cats that slink around the property.
Teddy Johnson is a bear of a man, born a little over 70 years ago in the house that’s now his namesake club. On Easter Sunday, he was resplendent in a white suit and hat and a pale-pink shirt, a gold teddy-bear charm hung around his neck, with tiny garnet-colored jewels for eyes. When we wander in, he’s taking the air with a couple outside; immediately, he introduces them to Cook and tells them about the book.
Inside, Christmas lights, Mardi Gras beads and other ornaments dangle from every available surface. Johnson’s wife, Nancy, is in the kitchen cooking up chicken wings and red beans and rice. The jukebox is loaded with electric urban blues and soul – lots of Johnnie Taylor and Denise LaSalle – but it’s off, since Teddy has slipped into the palatial DJ booth to spin some raunchy R&B sides while the night’s entertainment, Lil Ray Neal, sets up. There are only four or five of us in the place this early in the evening, so everyone gets a personalized shout-out on the mike.
When Cook wrote the entry for Teddy’s in “Louisiana Saturday Night,” which he used as the book’s prologue, he noted that what surprised him most about visiting it for the first time, in 2006, was not that it exists, but that, after many years living in Baton Rouge and writing about its music scene, he’d never heard of it. It’s about a 15-minute drive from his house.
“Louisiana Saturday Night” is full of such under-promoted spots, and the book could easily function as a guide for your own summer Saturdays (or your days between New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival weekends, should you be at leisure). None of its destinations is more than a three-hour drive from the greater New Orleans area. To readers with no plans to visit, though, its value is in Cook’s vivid travelogue and deft observations as to what these gathering spots mean to Louisiana culture: The way we eat, drink and dance tells stories about who we are.
Descriptions of dark nights on dirt roads looking for a tavern’s lights make a reader feel he can almost see the bayou or the sugar cane in the moonlight, out the passenger-side window; a sentence about cicadas and tree frogs twittering in counterpoint to a zydeco band put you right there, under the stars at an RV park in Eunice. A brief essay about an ultimately fruitless search for a blues club called Emma’s in Port Allen wonders, subtly, at the strange de facto segregation that still exists in the rural music scene.
As he notes in the book’s introduction, “Breaking down Louisiana culture into atomic parts is tricky because subcultures intermingle and mutate: black meets white, affluent meets impoverished, town meets country, Cajun meets Indian meets French and so on.
“The place where those interactions can best be observed,” he continues, “is on countless wooden dance floors and smoky bars tucked away in neighborhoods, at the end of dark country roads.
“Louisiana’s nightclubs are not the places where we carve out our future but where we play out our present, often in the shadow of our past.”
Cabs, Covers, and Cocktails - Part 2
Katie Pate returns to Teddy's, with her mom, to catch Lil' Ray Neal in this March 11, 2012 article
Louisiana Blues Music at Teddy's
The first time I went to the juke joint, there was no live music, just Teddy and his records. On Sunday, I brought my mother to hear Lil’ Ray Neal play classic Louisiana blues guitar.
Like so many blues musicians, Raful “Lil Ray” Neal III is a virtually unknown outside of the blues community. However, he is considered one of today’s finest blues guitarists. His band consisted of drummer Oliver Well, brother Darnell Neal on bass guitar, “Ray” from New Orleans on the saxophone and a keyboardist, whose name I missed (sorry keyboardist! You were also a great singer!).Just driving up to Teddy’s makes you feel you’ve discovered something special and secret. The little shotgun home that houses the juke joint is where owner Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson was born. Inside is a sprawling collection of blues memorabilia covering every wall and window with a small stage in the front where Lil’ Ray and his band performed.
The music was soulful and luxuriating. It seemed to spread over us like the fragrant steam from a pot of home cookin’ spreads throughout a kitchen. The crowd was small but enthusiastic, encouraging lyrics with a shout, clapping and dancing.
Lil’ Ray Neal told us about how he was the one of ten children raised by a musical father (blues harmonica player Raful Neal Jr.). “He raised ten children playing music, and I can barley raise three!” Ray, sometimes called the “gentle giant of the blues” told us of his travels with various other blues musicians around the nation. But always returned to Baton Rouge to play with his father.
“Playin’ with my Daddy made me a better person,” he explained, remembering the night he had to go play a gig with his father instead of attend the prom.
Some songs performed were “talk too much” about a chatty woman; “two dollars,” with the chorus “one for my bus fare and one for the juke box. Play me some blues!” Songs were slow and fast, playful and serious. The one thing they all had in common is they were GREAT!
We only stayed for the early set from 6 pm until 8 pm, but we did receive a fried chicken dinner for free around 7 p.m. (Blues plate special?) The crowd was older, which might be why the show started around 5 p.m. Hey, that’s alright with me. I get pretty sick of arriving at a show that “starts” at 10 p.m. and the main act does not take the stage until 12:30 a.m. Gimmie a break!
If you like the blues, go to Teddy’s. If you love the blues, you probably already know about Teddy’s. And if you are just curious about the blues and authentic Louisiana music, go to Teddy’s. You won’t be disappointed!
Katie Pate first *discovered* Teddy back in September, 2011. It was a quiet night so she recorded as I talked...
Blues Philosophy at Teddy's
On a lonely, quiet road in Zachary, there is a small shotgun house decorated with red Christmas lights and a sign guiding whomever might be driving by to stop at “Teddy’s Juke Joint.” Although humble on the outside, the inside of Teddy’s is a blues Graceland, crowded with memorabilia, mardi gras beads, instruments, photos and plain ol’ nick-knacks.
However, the night I arrived at Teddy’s, it was anything but crowded. I stopped by the same night as an LSU football game, which keeps the juke joint pretty empty. In fact, it was just me and my two buddies, along with owner Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson Jr., his wife Nancy, and the doorman Dirk. The music playing in the background was stellar: old and new blues, loud, crisp and clear. Teddy has a throne for DJing, but since it was just us, he sat by the bar and told us about life.
“Louisiana doesn’t want the kids doing blues. It’s a cultural thing. They want to keep the good things away from the black man. But Mississippi, they have acknowledged what the black man has done.Teddy started playing music when he was five years old; he is now 65. He believes that true blues musicians need to spend time in both Louisiana and Mississippi. As he explained it, Louisiana is not as prideful of it’s blues tradition as Mississippi.
“Can you think of a single radio station in Baton Rouge that plays blues? The blues man makes less money than any other musician in America. Yet the blues is the only original American musical genre. A rapper can go out and make a million dollars by using someone else’s (sic) music.”
This is just a tiny taste of Teddy’s philosophies on life, debt, education, politics and race he shared with us that night.
Regular players at Teddy’s include musicians Slim Harpo, Henry Grey and Tabby Thomas, whom were also inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame this past weekend. These musicians recorded with the Blues greats: Buddy Guy, Howling Wolf and B.B. King. But you’ve probably never heard of them, I hadn’t. Henry Gray, famed blues pianist, also plays for the lunch crowd at the Piccadilly on Government St.
It seems that blues music is filled with these kind of oppositions: national recognition and local obscurity; jubilant melodies expressing despair; rebirth from destruction. Dirk, the “doh man,” told me that many people come to Teddy’s while on their “Blues Odyssey,” a trip that blues aficionados take through Louisiana and Mississippi to learn and understand more of the genre. “They say blue is the only color you can feel,” Dirk tells me, flicking a cigarette on the porch outside, “people wanna get some on them.”
Although I was the only patron at Teddy’s that night, I would recommend a trip to Zachary to anyone who appreciates music. Teddy was born in the house that is now is juke joint, a holy grail for blues fans and a lucky find for anyone else who manages to stumble in.
This past weekend I went to Teddy's Juke Joint
with a friend. What's a juke joint you ask? Well I'm not quite sure myself, but luckily we have wikipedia, "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." After reading that it makes a lot more sense than the explanation the boy gave me, "Juke like a jukebox, its just a bar that plays popular music." It fits pretty much all of the wiki definition, except I didn't see any gambling going on there.
First, getting there was an adventure in itself. We met up with some friends and followed their car out of town. I decided to drive, since neither one of us really trusted any one else who was going to drive and not drink. The place was outside of Baton Rouge, technically in a city called Zachary. Although really it was in Rural Zachary, which is a nice way of saying in the middle of nowhere. We drove down this poorly lit road in the middle of nowhere (in the pouring rain I might add) and of course drove past it. Which meant we had to turn down a little side street to turn back around. What should have been a nice 3-point turn turned into a 12 point turn for me. Like most places in Louisiana instead of having sidewalks next to the road there are huge ditches. My worst fear is driving into one of them and not being able to get my car out. So I was overly cautious turning around and managed to do so successfully.
We do finally get to Teddy's and park in their gravel parking lot. We ran to the door to try to stay somewhat dry in the downpour. (Kind of silly because one of us forgot our id, so we had to run back out to the car.) Once we were id-ed and ready to go in we had to each pay a $10 cover. The guys who we had followed arrived a few minutes before us and they didn't have to pay the cover. Call it bad timing, because the bouncer was only there about half of the night because the bar itself was so tiny.
Teddy's was really just a wooden shack. When I got there I started to say it was kind of ghetto, and while that would have worked as a classification in California, here in Louisiana you would say that it was kind of country. There were probably 20 people inside the bar, of which 15 were there for the same birthday party as us. Considering what I hate most about going out is being somewhere where there isn't enough space to move, I love that this had more than enough space for everyone.
They had a live act playing on the stage most of the time and when they weren't playing Teddy was djing. Yes, Teddy is the actual owners name. A large black man who was wearing what looked like sheriffs outfit from an old western. His wife Nancy was working the bar; she was an older white woman with long grey hair. Needless to say they were an interesting couple who you wouldn't have assumed would be together.
The bar itself was decorated full of knick-knacks. Hanging from the ceiling were odds items like an LSU football helmet, a trumpet, and a tricycle. Honestly, it kind of felt like a bar you would see in a movie (most likely a horror film). The best part about the bar was how intimate it felt. Teddy gave the birthday girl a T-shirt as a present. Nancy came up to us individually and thanked us for being there.
This is supposedly one of the last Juke Joints left in the country. According to wikipedia, places like the House of Blues are modeled after them, but there they really don't come even close. So if you ever happen to be in Rural Zachary you should stop by, its just down the road from the youth correction facility!