Robert Mugge

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"Last of the Mississippi Jukes"
Director's Notes

In the fall of 1990, I was hired by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics and his COO Eileen Gregory to collaborate with the late blues historian Robert Palmer on a film we later titled DEEP BLUES. The project never had a lot to do with Bob Palmer’s remarkable book of the same name, but we still decided to borrow its title for the film, since our mission was to locate and document the sort of “deep” traditional blues that Bob insisted could only be made by African American musicians with roots in and around the Mississippi Delta. Bob also assured us that, no matter how much blues had changed as it had circled the globe, transforming itself into any number of newer styles and genres, we would still find first-rate Mississippi artists playing essentially the same sort of music that Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Skip James had once played in tiny shacks beside cotton fields. And indeed, most of the artists we did find and film - Junior Kimbrough (still unrecorded at that time), R.L. Burnside (also virtually unknown), Big Jack Johnson, Roosevelt “Booba” Barnes, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Lonnie Pitchford, and Jack Owens & Bud Spires - were creating sounds closely related to what bluesmen and blueswomen had been playing there for decades, even if the guitars they were using now tended to be electric. But almost as exciting as finding and filming the artists themselves was filming the clubs and lounges in which they performed in Greenville, Clarks- dale, and Holly Springs, Mississippi - venues that had evolved out of those original plantation shacks and that, like them, were still called juke joints or juke houses.

As Bob Palmer explained for our cameras, standing in front of Smitty’s Red Top Lounge in Clarksdale, Mississippi, “The word ‘juke’ came to America from West Africa where it was a word meaning ‘to have a good time.’ Down in this part of the country, a juke joint is just a place where people go to have a good time, and it’s associated with the blues.”

For us, however, the more important point was that the music these artists were playing, the audiences for whom they were playing it, and the venues in which the two came together each weekend were clearly inseparable. In other words, to try and remove this music from its natural setting would surely lead to it being changed in some way, just as the blues had been altered again and again when exported to Memphis, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, and even Great Britain. And so, with that in mind, we resolved to capture the overall milieu of Mississippi blues on film, and then to deliver it, intact, to an unsuspecting world.

When we finally completed DEEP BLUES in mid-1991 and began showing it in theaters a short time later, many of the first to see it did, in fact, respond as if to an exotic foreign culture they had never known existed. And certainly, for all of the mainstream rock fans who had grown up believing that Eric Clapton and Stevie Rae Vaughan represented everything they needed to know about the blues (in spite of protestations from the two musicians themselves), the view we provided of living and working blues artists in the Mississippi Delta, the North Mississippi hill country, spooky Bentonia, and other isolated communities really did seem like a glimpse of something extremely foreign, and yet something strangely familiar as well.

Moreover, the almost simultaneous release of our film, of its soundtrack CD on Atlantic Records, and of a boxed set of Robert Johnson CDs on Columbia Records helped to ignite a new fascination with Mississippi blues in general. And it led to labels such as Fat Possum (with the help of Bob Palmer once again) recording wonderful new albums by the likes of Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis, T-Model Ford, and others. In my own case, the same fascination led to production of several more blues-related films. But those, in turn, led to my growing concern that the Mississippi juke joint scene, which had still seemed relatively healthy in 1990, had been heading, ever since, into irreversible decline. Fearing, in fact, that the entire juke joint tradition could soon cease to exist, I resolved to find funding for at least one more film that would capture “live” juke joint blues in the Mississippi Delta.

Skipping ahead to early 2003, the release of LAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI JUKES is the direct result not only of my ongoing determination to make such a film, but also of the influence of several close friends and associates. For instance, in the late winter of 2001, Terry Stewart (President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum) convinced David Hughes (primarily a Vicksburg-based blues guitarist and collector of music memorabilia) to bring me to Mississippi to show three of my blues-related docs at Jackson’s Crossroads Film Festival, which David was then helping to program. That David was able to fly me in for the early April festival turned out to be fortuitous in several respects. For one thing, while making my presentation there, I was introduced both to Louisiana blues artist and actor Chris Thomas King who had literally grown up in a Baton Rouge juke joint, and to locally based blues entrepreneur Vasti Jackson who quickly challenged me to make a film about the “real” blues joints of Mississippi, rather than focusing on the glitzier blues clubs that had been springing up in recent years. But even more important, David later took Terry Stewart, film critic Michael Wilmington, and me to visit a local, late-night club called the Subway Lounge. And to say the least, we were all impressed.

Although it’s difficult to put our feelings that night into words, I believe it’s safe to say that Terry, Michael and I were simply transported by the rough ambience of the dank, smoky, poorly lit basement room in which we found ourselves, by the harmonious interplay of black and white Mississippians in a black-owned venue on the black side of town, and especially by the extraordinary caliber of local musicians who sang and played their hearts out from midnight until shortly before dawn. As for myself, I decided right then and there that any film I made about Mississippi jukes would have to include Jimmy and Helen King’s Subway Lounge because, for reasons I could not fully comprehend, I truly felt that I was home. It was as if all of the music I had listened to since my mid-teens, and all of the issues I had cared about for just as long, were suddenly present in their purest forms. And yes, there was something in that welcoming smile of Helen by the front door, and of Jimmy behind the bar, that said to me, “Your musical family has been waiting here to receive you. You need never more feel ‘like a motherless child.’”

A month later, I presented the same three films on Beale Street in Memphis as part of the W.C. Handy Awards celebrations and, while there, learned that a new club owned by actor Morgan Freeman, Clarksdale lawyer Bill Luckett, and Blues Foundation executive director Howard Stovall was set to open in Clarksdale the very same weekend. Called Ground Zero (some months before the tragic events of 9/11) due to the fact that blues is generally assumed to have been born right there in Clarksdale, the club had been intentionally designed to evoke the look and feel of a traditional Mississippi juke joint, right as such places were growing more and more scarce. Upon hearing about the club and about Morgan Freeman’s personal involvement, I immediately put out feelers through Howard Stovall and Bill Luckett in the hope of involving Morgan and Ground Zero in my planned juke joint film.

As the year drew on, I also spent more and more time seeking funding for the production, and eventually partnered with David Hughes in an effort to secure backing in Mississippi itself. Unfortunately, those particular efforts failed. But as the year came to a close, I suddenly learned that a cable TV channel called Black Starz! had been presenting both DEEP BLUES and my 1999 film HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson in what can only be called “heavy rotation.” With little left to lose, I decided to contact executives at Starz Encore Entertainment regarding some of my pending projects. To my great delight, the project that interested them most was my proposed juke joint film, and that interest became even greater when we learned from David Hughes that the City of Jackson was threatening to tear down the deteriorating building that had long housed the Subway Lounge in its basement - a building that also had once housed Jackson’s legendary Summers Hotel, itself the city’s first black-owned hotel, and the first such business in the entire region to rent rooms to people of color. Suitably intrigued by these developments, as well as by the fact that both Morgan Freeman and Chris Thomas King had now agreed to work with us on the project, Starz made a deal with the Heritage Network that allowed the two companies together to provide full funding for the project. And by the first week of April 2002, we were finally able to begin filming in both Jackson and Clarksdale.

Although we spent roughly a week on location in Mississippi, our shooting plans mostly revolved around one long, late-night concert that we filmed at the Subway Lounge beginning shortly before midnight on Friday, April 5th. On a typical weekend, one of two alternating house bands - either the House Rockers led by drummer Dudley Tardo, or the King Edward Blues Band led by guitarist and vocalist King Edward - would hold court there until roughly 5:00 in the morning, with perhaps a half-dozen local singers (and sometimes additional musicians) sitting in with the band over the course of the one night. But on this less typical occasion, both bands were brought in to perform at various times, along with a host of singers and musicians who had been “regulars” at the Subway at one point or another in its 35-year history. Subway owner Jimmy King couldn’t stand the thought of anyone being left out, so project music director David Hughes arranged for dozens of different performers simply to show up on the night in question. And then, together, he and the musicians decided who would perform what, and with whom, as cameras and recording equipment rolled under my direction.

Now, granted, everyone was mostly performing Subway Lounge standards with which they were all familiar, and many of those were covers of well-known songs released over the years by Jackson’s influential Malaco Records label. And yet, when you take into consideration that some of these individuals had never before played together, and that everything was being performed in single takes using arrangements which were essentially created on the spot, the quality of the resulting performances is truly remarkable.

Unfortunately, not all of the musicians we invited on short notice could be with us that Friday night, so a few - blues performer and bandleader Bobby Rush, gospel- musician-turned-bluesman Eddie Cotton, and returning visitor from Louisiana Chris Thomas King - were filmed the previous afternoon (Thursday, April 4th) in intimate solo sessions at the Subway. In addition, as we were setting up at the Subway Friday evening, we learned from Bill Luckett that he and Morgan Freeman could meet with us at Ground Zero in Clarksdale the following night (Saturday, April 6th). So, we hurriedly arranged for Alvin Youngblood Hart (who had previously performed a brilliant rendition of the more-or-less title song in my film HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL) to drive down from Memphis to perform for us at Ground Zero, and also arranged for local Clarksdale band the Deep Cuts to perform for us there as well. In the end, celebrated Clarksdale drummer Sam Carr (who had made a brief appearance in DEEP BLUES nearly twelve years before) and young Deep Cuts bass player Anthony Sherrod backed up Alvin for one ensemble number, and Bentonia juke joint guitarist John S. Holmes joined Deep Cuts in place of their own absent guitar player. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to fit the Deep Cuts performance into the film due to time constraints, but I did manage to include it on both the collector’s edition DVD and the separate soundtrack CD.

The film and the CD each open with one of the numbers performed for us by Alvin Youngblood Hart, though in each case, it’s a different song. On the CD, Alvin plays one of his originals called “Joe Friday” in which he pleads for Jack Webb’s classic detective character to find his missing woman, while wailing on guitar like a reborn Elmore James. In the film, by contrast, Alvin opens with a solo performance of Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues,” successfully evoking how Patton must have sounded in a dimly lit, rural juke. Of course, in the film, Alvin then performs “Joe Friday” as well, whereas on the CD, the second song heard is the Deep Cuts doing “Every Goodbye Don’t Mean I’m Gone,” with vocalist and songwriter Josh “Razorblade” Stewart strutting his stuff in a gold Robert Visconti suit while performing it. Again, that Deep Cuts performance is provided on the DVD as a bonus selection, though not as part of the film itself.

The remainder of both the film and the CD is comprised of material recorded at the Subway Lounge, almost all of it from either the late-night concert on Friday, April 5th or the intimate sessions staged there on Thursday afternoon, April 4th.

In fact, the third performance in the film was recorded at that late-night Subway concert, but not until roughly 5:00 in the morning, which probably explains why ace harp player Greg “Fingers” Taylor could only remember lyrics for the first two verses of his song. “Subway Swing,” as it’s called, is a heart-felt tribute to Jackson’s premier blues joint which Fingers wrote during the decades that he was based in Jackson and performing there regularly (when not touring the world with Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band). Fingers relocated to Flint, Michigan a few years back for family reasons, but he flew back home again to be part of this special event at his beloved Subway. He is ably backed by local guitarist Casey Phillips and Casey’s group the Hounds.

The fourth selection in the film is a cover of the Little Milton hit “The Blues Is Alright,” now performed as a duet by Dennis Fountain and Pat Brown. Dennis, a game room manager for Vicksburg’s Ameristar Casino Hotel, is also one of only three singers paid by Jimmy King to perform at the Subway on a regular basis. Although Dennis’s specialty is silken-smooth covers of soul ballads, he’s equally good on an upbeat soul-blues number such as this. His partner on the number, Pat Brown, was once a Subway regular herself, but she currently has a demanding schedule of session work and touring with her own band. And of course, do note the great guitar solo by veteran blues guitarist Jesse Robinson, and keyboard work by Pat’s husband Josh Brown, Jr.

Song number five in the film, “Stormy Monday,” is performed by singer Patrice Moncell, accompanied by Subway mainstays the House Rockers. Because Patrice now spends an increasing amount of time on tour, she’s no longer able to appear at the Subway every single weekend. But any time that “Mississippi’s own queen of the blues” (to quote emcee and tenor sax player London Moffitt III) comes strutting through the front door of the lounge, her well-rounded figure squeezed into a colorful evening dress, the late-night crowd parts for her as they would for few others, and the ensuing performance never disappoints. Music journalists are sometimes too quick to call a dynamic vocalist a “force of nature.” But Patrice Moncell is capable of so much passion, so much dexterity, so much range, and so much sheer volume that she can flatten a roomful of listeners as readily as a late summer hurricane can flatten a Delta housing project. So, in her case at least, the term truly fits. But in this song, she also receives solid support from soloists Mark Whittington on guitar and James Evans on alto sax.

The sixth performance in the film features an original number called “All Night Long” that was written by locally based musician Eddie Cotton and performed by him for his good friend Jimmy King on Thursday, April 4th. Eddie was once better known for playing gospel music in local churches, but he started sitting in with the King Edward Blues Band at the Subway Lounge and soon found he had a budding career as a blues musician. Eddie’s last-minute request that Jimmy join him in singing the chorus of the song stems from knowledge that Jimmy was once a professional singer himself.

Selection number seven is “Casino in the Cottonfield,” written and performed for the film by Vasti Jackson, a professional musician, record producer, and blues booster based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Vasti has a sometimes ferocious guitar style which publicist Cary Baker recently dubbed “stun guitar,” and his lyrics here bemoan the way newly built casinos are sucking all the money out of the Delta (not to mention providing stiff competition for Mississippi’s few remaining juke joints, which is helping to drive many of them out of business). Although you wouldn’t know it from the quality of its performance, the King Edward Blues Band was totally unfamiliar with this tune before performing it that night. But if you watch Vasti throughout the performance, you’ll see him placing one of his hands behind his back in order to signal chord changes to the other musicians.

Song number eight is Patrice Moncell’s unforgettably sexy cover of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’,” one of the chitlin’ circuit’s biggest hits of recent years. In her own signature version of the tune, Patrice provides laugh-inducing details of a recent sexual conquest overtop of a funky soul groove laid down by Vasti Jackson with the House Rockers. The weapons in Patrice’s raunchy arsenal include fried chicken, collard greens, corn bread, peach cobbler, a fifth of gin, and “whipped cream in the freezer” (“I’ll tell ya’ll about that one later on!”). This is nearly 10 full minutes of pure, unadulterated, musical seduction, leavened by a dollop of frustration with a thickheaded member of the opposite sex. As Patrice quotes her mama as warning, “If that man look too good, it might be somethin’ wrong with him.”

The ninth performance in the film features a duet between Levon Lindsey, a long-distance truck driver during the week and honey-throated R&B singer on the weekend, and J.T. Watkins, a retired-wildlife-conservation-officer-turned-security-guard by day and born blues shouter by night. Levon is the second and perhaps most important of the three house singers paid by Jimmy King to perform every weekend, and J.T. is Levon’s good friend who regularly comes onstage for two or three stirring duets. At this point in the film, they perform a cover of McKinley Mitchell’s rousing “You Know I’ve Tried,” while later, they blend their complementary voices on Mitchell’s gospel-like hit “The End of the Rainbow.” And in both cases, they are given skillful accompaniment by the Subway’s own King Edward Blues Band. The songs these two fine singers sing, and the styles in which they sing them, are ample evidence of the influence of Jackson’s own Malaco Records on the musical consciousness of the entire region, as are the additional Malaco songs used in the film and on the CD, including “Hole in the Wall,” “Members Only,” “The Blues Is Alright,” “Still Called the Blues,” “Garbage Man,” and (on the DVD only) “Down Home Blues.”

The tenth selection in the film, “Garbage Man” by Bobby Rush, was one of the songs recorded on a quiet afternoon at the Subway with no one else present but Jimmy King and a small film crew. As any true fan of Mississippi blues will tell you, Bobby Rush, his tight band, and his lovely backup singers have been an institution on the southern “chitlin’ circuit” since the 1950s, and his bawdy, energetic shows still sell out casinos, juke joints, and blues festivals alike. Here, performing one of his own classic compositions for longtime buddy Jimmy King, he proves that he can be just as powerful when armed with only a blues harp and his always-soulful voice as when he’s fronting the entire Bobby Rush revue. And check out the hilarious DVD bonus footage of Bobby demonstrating two blues harps for Jimmy, with all of the sexual and emotional overtones he can bring to just a handful of well-played notes.

A portion of the time put in every second weekend by the King Edward Blues Band, one of the Subway Lounge’s two alternating house bands, is spent working as a self-contained unit, with veteran bluesman King Edward himself serving as singer and lead guitarist. The film’s eleventh number showcases just such a situation, with King Edward leading his band in a rough-and-ready, down-and-dirty, no-frills version of the Mel Waiters classic “Hole in the Wall.” The song itself offers a vivid picture of a “smoke-filled room,” of “whisky and chicken wings,” and of the singer’s “high class woman” friend who, at first, turns up her nose at the run-down venue in question, but who ultimately winds up dancing there until dawn. In fact, you can almost hear the grease and spilled beer sliding down un-painted walls, thanks to Johnny Sharp’s squealing alto sax solo. In other words, the song’s performance is a near-perfect evocation of a weekend night at the Subway Lounge itself.

The twelfth selection in the film is actually just an excerpt from a longer number recorded at approximately 6:00 in the morning at the Subway Lounge. After having spent the entire night helping to prepare other singers and musicians to perform songs embodying the essential Subway experience, the film’s music director David Hughes finally got to climb onstage himself and, together with fellow guitarist Virgil Brawley, began improvising a jump blues tune around lyrics he had written about the much-beloved Subway. In fact, knowing that I planned to title the film LAST OF THE MISSISSIPPI JUKES, David adopted that as his theme and then dedicated his song to the man-of-the-hour Jimmy King. Of course, much like “Fingers” Taylor with his performance of “Subway Swing” an hour before, David could only remember the first verse he had written. So, he and Virgil soon began vamping on guitar with David calling out for Jimmy to join them onstage. After a brief pause, Jimmy - who always seems to be running in a hundred directions at once in order to keep beer, music, and his patented chili dogs (called “blues dogs”) flowing - suddenly reappeared, climbed onto the low stage, and grabbed hold of a microphone. Then, with little or no warning, the band abruptly changed keys, and Jimmy started singing Little Junior Parker’s classic tune “Next Time You See Me,” just as he had performed it years before while a singer and saxophone player with the Duke Huddleston Orchestra, and later with his own band the Rocketeers that backed up Ivory Joe Hunter and Percy Mayfield. It was a lovely and unscripted close to an unbelievable musical evening, and it demonstrated the sort of unpredictability (including a sour note or two) for which the Subway has long been known. Of course, to hear this entire performance - rather than just the brief excerpt included in the film - you’ll have to pick up a copy of our soundtrack CD.

For the film’s thirteenth performance, guitarist Vasti Jackson and members of the King Edward Blues Band invited legendary songwriter George Jackson up to the stage for a stunningly improvised cover of George’s own song, “Still Called the Blues.” It’s a wonderful song that shows how emotional and psychological problems of the modern world are really just the same old blues that has dogged human beings throughout our history. And although George Jackson may not be the strongest of singers on the planet, he has a superb sense of timing that comes through not only in his playful interaction with Vasti’s leg-lifting bursts of country- funk guitar, but also in the soulful groove he lays down after exhausting all of his standard lyrics.

The fourteenth number is McKinley Mitchell’s bittersweet “End of the Rainbow” as performed by Levon Lindsey and J.T. Watkins backed up by the King Edward Blues Band. Because the song combines a somber melody with moving yet fatalistic lyrics, it provides the perfect background for images of the Civil Rights struggle, the implication being that problems plaguing black people throughout the South led not only to the birth of the blues, but also to creation of the Civil Rights Movement itself.

The 15th selection is a somewhat uncharacteristic number by Louisiana actor and musician Chris Thomas King. Already well-known to blues fans for his forward-looking hybrids of blues and hip-hip on his own self-produced CDs, Chris’s appearance as legendary bluesman Tommy Johnson in the hit movie O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? led to his deep immersion in country blues traditions and a whole lot more. That is, as a result of his spending weeks being filmed in and around Jackson, Mississippi (with all of the tedious “down time” typical to Hollywood productions), he not only wound up visiting the Subway Lounge for both weekend recreation and the film’s official wrap party, but also spent his considerable free time writing new songs of his own in the style of classic Delta blues. Therefore, when Chris returned to Jackson on April 4, 2002 to pay tribute to Jimmy King and his endangered Subway Lounge, he chose to perform just such a song, and one that symbolically recounts what Baton Rouge, Louisiana authorities did to his own father’s well-known juke called Tabby’s Blues Box. This powerful tune is titled “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto’.”

Song number sixteen, “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” is a feverish “woman scorned” number by the equally hot singer and electric slide guitar player known simply as Lucille. A native of Lake Providence, Louisiana, Lucille (aka Lu Ridges) now lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi where she directs the newly formed Willie Dixon-Vicksburg Blues Society. Over the years, she has toured with Little Milton, backed up Albert King, and performed with the likes of Memphis Slim, Z.Z. Hill, Dr. John, and R.L. Burnside. Her combination Cherokee and Louisiana French heritage makes her a one-of-a-kind performer, supported here by an assortment of Mississippi musicians including Greg “Fingers” Taylor on harp.

The seventeenth song in the film is the euphemistic “Cigarette Blues” that was written by Bo Carter, a prominent blues guitarist and vocalist in Jackson during the 1920s and 1930s. Carter, who once lived only a few blocks from where the Subway now stands, gained his fame both as a solo performer and recording artist and as a member of the Mississippi Sheiks with his brothers Lonnie, Harry and Sam Chatmon. “Cigarette Blues” was performed for our film by blues historian and musician Steve Cheseborough as he sat and chatted with Jimmy King at the Subway Lounge on Sunday night, April 7th.

The film’s climactic number is Abdul Rasheed’s cover of the Bobby “Blue” Bland hit “Members Only” which, in the context of this project, invites everyone everywhere to visit the Subway Lounge. With his beaming face scanning the crowd, and his shaved head nearly scraping the ceiling, Abdul (a retired postal worker and the third of three singers paid to perform at the Subway each week) croons his lyrical “welcome” over the House Rockers’ gently cascading beat: “Members only...it’s a private party. Don’t need no money...to qualify. Don’t bring your checkbook; bring your broken heart. ‘Cause it’s members only...tonight.” Refining that message still further, he sings, “Say you’ve lost your woman; say you’ve lost your man. You’ve got a lot of problems...in your life. We’re throwing a party...for the sad and lonely. And it’s members only...tonight.”

With surprising simplicity, Jackson-based songwriter Larry Addison (as interpreted by Abdul) has pinpointed not only why the blues would have first taken root in the Mississippi Delta (this land of slavery, sharecropping, lynchings, and more), but also why those very same blues could reach and inspire ordinary people around the world. As we all know, for hundreds of years, African Americans, especially in the Deep South, were a people apart, suffering unspeakable hardships at the hands of white masters and bosses. And yet, they survived, both as a people and as individuals, by sticking together and by finding their own spiritual and emotional outlets in Sunday morning churchgoing and Saturday night jukin’. So, when “Members Only” alludes to a place where downhearted people can find relief in the company of fellow sufferers, we know implicitly what is being said: that black people, more than any others in our society, have had good reason to be downhearted, and that they, more than others, would need a place where what’s wrong could be made right again. Of course, “Members Only” (especially with Abdul’s improvisations added) goes one step further, visualizing the Mississippi juke joint not only as a place for black escape and release, but also as a place for harmony between the sexes, between generations, and especially between races: “Go tell Mama; go tell Daddy: Red or yellow...black or white. We’re throwing a party [right here at the Subway] for the brokenhearted. And it’s members only...tonight.” As Living Blues magazine quoted the director of a local social services organization as saying several years ago, “The Subway is about the only place [in Jackson] where middle-class whites and inner city blacks can meet with some kind of common humanity.” So, the same ramshackle venues that once provided refuge for a black population under siege can now provide a means for local blacks and whites (indeed, all blacks and whites) to overcome a heritage of racial hatred and separation and to come together in a shared appreciation for enduring black traditions. The juke joints themselves may be slipping away, but the sounds they created, and the spirits they unleashed, already belong to the ages.

Again, the traditional blues culture that took root early in the last century would seem, at last, to be verging on extinction. Reportedly, hundreds of jukes once operated in black neighborhoods across Mississippi. But only a short time ago, historian Steve Cheseborough marched from one end of the state to the other in search of truly authentic jukes which he could list in his book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues. Yet, he could locate only a mere half-dozen that still feature “live” music, and one of those was Jimmy King’s Subway Lounge.

So, fans hoping to experience even a hint of how the blues scene has long functioned in these parts should get themselves quickly down to Jackson, Mississippi before (1) the decaying old Summers Hotel building finally collapses, (2) the city follows through on its threat to condemn the place, or (3) Jimmy simply throws up his hands and moves to a new location - one that may or may not have the same sort of ambience which his current juke enjoys.

Of course, there’s a fourth possibility as well, and that is that Jimmy King will choose to close up shop and get out of the juke joint business altogether. Without doubt, the saddest part of this project was seeing his charming wife Helen becoming ill and having to be hospitalized just as we were filming at the Subway last April, and then knowing that she was succumbing to lung cancer at the same time that we were completing the film late in the year. Certainly, no one could blame Jimmy if he wanted to take life a little easier now after so major a loss. But Jimmy King, a retired biology teacher and the most positive person I’ve ever met, says that he’s determined to keep the Subway open - not only for himself, for his musicians, and for his devoted patrons, but because it’s what Helen would have wanted. So, even if some see Helen’s passing as still another sad omen regarding the future of this and all other Mississippi juke joints, the performers working the Subway each weekend have yet to miss a beat. As if to emphasize this fact, as well as to demonstrate how different blues musicians can perform the same song in totally different ways, I’ve added two “live” versions of the classic George Jackson composition “Down Home Blues” to the DVD, one performed by Abdul Rasheed with the House Rockers, and the other performed by Levon Lindsey with the King Edward Blues Band.

Late 2004 Update: Sadly the efforts to keep the original Subway functioning were not successful, and this unique juke joint/urban lounge closed for good in mid-2003. However, a prominent Jackson restaurant called Schimmel's has recently joined forces with Jimmy King and the House Rockers band to stage a series of "Subway Reunions," and Jimmy himself has purchased an old building on Jackson's historic Farrish Street which he hopes eventually to open as the new Subway Lounge. Anyone with a serious desire to invest in this new venture may contact me via e-mail and I'll forward the message to Jimmy King.

- Robert Mugge

© Mug-Shot Productions 2003 All Rights Reserved

Video Clips and Photo Album