Drinking and Dancing at the South’s Last True Juke Joint

Over the last half-century, juke joints—rural Southern bars for dancing and music—have become an endangered breed. Sarah Baird travels up the Mississippi Delta to drink and dance at one of the South's last true juke joints: Po'Monkey's.

po monkey's juke joint mississippi

By the time we arrived at legendary juke joint Po’Monkey’s—past endless stretches of flat-as-a-flitter farmland and cheerily named bodies of water like the Sunflower River—the journey up the misty Mississippi Delta from New Orleans had already been filled with enough bluesy good fortune to make the trip feel sanctified.

Over the course of an afternoon, our band poured out an offering of Old Fitzgerald at the grave(s) of Delta blues hero Robert Johnson (who reportedly favored the whiskey), heard an impromptu concert from the legendary Jimmy “Duck” Holmes at the cinder block-walled Blue Front Café while swilling beer and eating oatmeal cream pies and (briefly) got the car stuck in a cotton field. But the magic we’d driven up from New Orleans to find was patiently waiting in Merigold, Mississippi (population: 439).

The unabashed pride and joy of Merigold, Po’Monkey’s is one of the last true juke joints left in the South, holding tight to its roots as a place for rural workers (traditionally, sharecroppers) to gather for drinking, dancing and music after the end of a long week.

Juke joints derived their name from the Gullah word “joog” or “jook” (which means “disorderly”) and quickly became a fixture on the landscape of the rural South after emancipation. In addition to serving as a boozy respite, juke joints were fertile soil for the development of some of the country’s most important musical styles, from slow drag and ragtime to, yes, the blues. While the majority of juke joints have folded under the weight of financial pressures and changing tastes, Po’Monkey’s has a following that seems to have swelled in recent years, becoming an unlikely destination for visitors from across the world meandering along the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Without question, the heartbeat of Po’Monkey’s is the club’s owner and namesake. Willie “Po’Monkey” Seaberry has been running the joint (which doubles as his house) since he was 16 years old, all while continuing to work as a farmer by day. Six decades later, down an unmarked road, the place has firmly positioned itself as a ramshackle global treasure.

Quilted in layers of hand-painted signs that crisscross one another like show flyers, the building’s exterior outlines Po’Monkey’s ground rules: NO SAGGING PANTS, NO OUTSIDE BEER, NO DOPE SMOKING and, perhaps most importantly, NO RAP MUSIC. The building itself is a raw work of art, reminiscent of something Georgia folk artist Howard Finster would’ve dreamed up (or deeply loved).

Walking through the door of the place is like being dropped into an old-school claw machine at your favorite teenage pizza parlor. Dozens of stuffed monkeys and strands of Christmas lights drip from the impossibly low ceilings and the walls are covered in a menagerie of knickknacks. (Look there, baby dolls! Over here, giant sequin pants! And step right up, an entire corner plastered in old tractor advertisements!)

The real jewels of the bar, though, are the astonishingly diverse patrons, all of whom are giddy to be in such a revered space. There are the regulars who request the same Buddy Ace songs from the DJ each week, eating rolls of Mentos with Jack Daniels chasers. There’s the Sexy Ladies Motorcycle Club, who rolled in—fringe flying—wearing coordinated leather vests with their faces emblazoned on the back. A prim pair of Minnesota tourists in cardigans gingerly sipped their beers, eyes racing from side-to-side as women and men shimmied and hip-popped through the club’s narrow aisles.

Later in the evening, I found myself smoking a cigar of my own, musing on the future of Mississippi juke joint culture and petting a baby chicken named Honey, who snuggled into a cooing slumber on my lap. The slow burning death of juke joints isn’t just a heavy blow to the Delta—it rips at the very fiber of American culture. By serving as a tinderbox for the country’s musical explosion, juke joints have firmly positioned themselves at the epicenter of what it means to be unabashedly American.

After watching a freewheeling patron in a red velour sweat suit perform a seductive version of the “The Wobble” while sipping a Big Gulp-sized strawberry daiquiri, I was feeling emboldened. Tapping Willie on the shoulder, I asked if he would dance with me to the slow grooving sounds of Clarence Carter.

No dice.

“Baby, the only dancing I do is between the sheets,” Seaberry winked as the song ended, cigar clutched in his front teeth. He ambled off to the back of the bar behind a swinging saloon-style half door, soon to emerge in a camouflaged visor fitted with wild tufts of fake, wheat-colored hair.

Even at 75, Seaberry isn’t a man to shy away from pranks. Over the course of an evening, he swoops behind the scenes like a barroom magician, returning in a new wig or outfit with fresh props to get a rise out of visitors.

Mostly, his gags involve dildos. There’s his holiday-themed dildo wrapped in crumbled striped red-and-white paper and roped in Christmas lights, or the dildo hidden under a metal “pump gas here” sign, which Seaberry often wears around his waist.

In a space that walks the razor’s edge between cramped and cozy, it’s this parade of impressive impish creativity that allows strangers to happily cram in next to one another at long tables covered in floral oilcloth. Everyone’s in on the same dirty joke; then they’re all ready to dance with each other’s dates and swap plastic cups full of Crown Royal.

Later in the evening, I found myself smoking a cigar of my own, musing on the future of Mississippi juke joint culture and petting a baby chicken named Honey, who snuggled into a cooing slumber on my lap.

The slow burning death of juke joints isn’t just a heavy blow to the Delta—it rips at the very fiber of American culture. By serving as a tinderbox for the country’s musical explosion, juke joints have firmly positioned themselves at the epicenter of what it means to be unabashedly American.

In more urban locales, when historic watering holes are penciled onto the endangered list, troops quickly rally around to show their support, pouring out in droves to rail against soaring rental practices. But old-line rural bars and juke joints—plunked down in the middle of dusty cotton fields or thick-leafed hollers—are not so fortunate. Their demise becomes heartbreakingly silent—the kind of slogging, molasses-slow extinction that’s more whimper than “rage into the dying of the light” roar.

“I’m trying to teach my grandson to play the blues—he’s eleven—but he’s not really taking to it,” Jimmy Holmes lamented earlier in the day at Blue Front. “We need young people to care or the blues is going to go away.”

Loving the blues means recognizing a deep-seated, universal empathy. “We’ve all been heartbroken, we’ve all had sorrow,” the blues likes to say. “But we’re all in this together.” Juke joints have long since provided a unique oasis for this catharsis. They’re a place to feel, for a moment, the sort of kinship with others that’s at the very core of what it means to be human.

This camaraderie grips at everyone who walks through the door at Po’Monkey’s, as people lay down their troubles together—if only for the night—in favor of a beer, a chuckle and a spin around the dance floor.

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