Roger Stolle & Lou Bopp – Mississippi Juke Joint Confidential: House Parties, Hustlers, & The Blues Life
Eighteen years ago, author Roger Stolle left behind a successful career in corporate marketing to move to Clarksdale, MS to immerse himself in the local blues scene. While Clarksdale sits squarely in the Delta region that figures so prominently is the history of blues music, known as the Crossroads of the Blues, at the time of the move the area lacked any semblance of a coordinated effort to celebrate the legacy.
Stolle had a plan to elevate the region, to remind blues fans of its continuing importance. He opened the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Store, which has become a clearing house for all things blues related in the region, selling CDs, records, books, magazines, works from local artists, and the spot to learn what is happening in the area’s live music scene. Stolle has also been involved in a number of festivals, including his own creation, the Juke Joint Festival, while serving on the board of directors for a number of civic organizations. In his spare time, he writes columns for several blues publications, and authored a previous book in 2011, Hidden History Of Mississippi Blues. His efforts have earned him several awards, including a 2008 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for retailing.
His latest work takes readers deep into the juke culture that has nurtured the music since it’s early days. Setting the stage in the first chapter, Stolle offers some defining features of a juke joint, stressing that juke people are a cut above the norm, coming from a background where a life of sharecropping was a common denominator. Next comes a close look at the late Robert “Bilbo” Walker, guitarist and the owner the Wonder Light City juke that opened shortly before Walker’s passing. Stolle describes the ten year effort to make the joint a working enterprise, and how Walker handled the bouts of bad luck that always seemed close at hand.
Two lengthy chapters, entitled If Walls Could Talk Part 1 & 2, are quotes from various blues musicians and juke owners, taken from interviews Stolle has conducted that “illustrate the general nature of juke joints, house parties, and the blues life”. The owner of Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, Red Paden starts off by making it clear that his guests don’t have to be perfect, but they are still expected to conduct themselves as responsible men and women. James “T-Model” Ford provides a vivid depiction of one night when things did go wrong. Remarks from familiar names like “Big” Jack Johnson and “Big” George Brock are interspersed with comments from local players like Louis “Gearshifter” Youngblood, who worries that the music may be suffering from a lack of interest. No doubt readers will garner much of interest from these sections.
Other chapters delve into the influence of moonshine on the culture before devoting a few pages to Paden, “King of the Juke Joint Runners,” who has stuck with blues no matter which way the musical tide seemed to be flowing. Included is a marvelous story of how Red’s Lounge almost became the setting for a reality-based TV show. One can barely imagine how much “reality” would have made the final edits! The closing of Po’ Monkey’s after the death of owner Willie Seaberry in 2016 ended over five decades of existence for what a juke that was known the world over. Stolle shares a number of tales from his years of going on tour with more than a few of the musicians mentioned in the book. “Taking Juke Joints On Tour” is an often humorous recounting of what transpired when the juke attitude collided the outside world. Finally, he enlightens readers as to how the Juke Joint Festival got started in addition to how it fits in to the efforts to market Clarksdale as a can’t-miss blues destination.
Another memorable feature of the book is the outstanding collection of Lou Bopp photographs. Normally a commercial photographer, Bopp also fell in love with the juke culture. His B&W photos are spread throughout, some highlighting the gritty nature of the jukes while other shots serve as portraits for people like Walker, Paden, and Seaberry. Also included in the center of the book are fifteen additional pages of color photographs, bringing out several more layers of rich detail, especially in one of Po’ Monkey’s at night or another of Leo “Bud” Welch, eyes closed and arms outstretched, sending out some kind of offering to the powers that be.
If you have been fortunate enough to visit Clarksdale and experience the real juke culture, this book will undoubtedly bring back plenty of memories. For those have not yet had the pleasure, make sure that get a copy of this one and commence to studying! You could not have a better guide than Stolle, a man who is devoted to the music and the people who play it. A must-read!