As much as a celebration as it is a eulogy: Though at times this documentary looks at the Mississippi blues scene grimly, you still feel grateful that director Robert Mugge at least took time to document that scene at its root. Even if it’s been fading for years, no true music lover will come away unmoved—and at times during the film, utterly exhilarated. Above: Mugge in the film with Irma Thomas and Morgan Freeman at the latter’s jukejoint.
BY JASON GROSS
In 2006, a Mississippi trip provided me with sumptuous culinary highlights but mixed musical highlights. The Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum had opened the year before in West Point and the Blues Festival done in Wolf’s name provided a great tribute including his long-time guitarist, the late Hubert Sumlin. The Delta Blues Museum stood as a large expanded former freight depot in Clarksdale, with its doors open since ’99, and just down the road from Ground Zero, a blues club co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, which started out only two years after that. Fitting that both places are also adjacent to the fabled crossroads when highways 61 and 49 meet. Unfortunately, both places were closed the days we visited so we made due with the 930 Blues Cafe in Jackson, a small suburban house that had comfort food and an older gent playing electric piano, as well as a stop at the Club Ebony in Indianola (purchased two years later by local legend B.B. King) which featured a band rehearsing ‘80s pop tunes- it didn’t necessarily feel down home in either place. But there was also plenty of mouth-watering, sauce-slathered barbecue there that any Northerner would kill for or weep in shame at the fake shit for passes for food above the Mason-Dixon Line.
A trip four years before that would have revealed another music landmark and cultural hub- the Subway Lounge in Jackson. Opened in ’66 by bandleader Jimmy King as a basement club in a black-owned hotel, Subway was a somewhat spiffier version of the blues clubs, aka juke joints, which featured local talent and all-night jams. It also a Souther stop for nationally-known R&B acts like James Brown and Jackie Wilson who would pass through (not to mention the Civil Rights Freedom Riders in the early ‘60s).
When director Robert Mugge (also responsible for 1991’s wonderful Deep Blues doc) showed up in 2002 to document the local scene, Subway was on its last legs while Ground Zero was just starting out. As such, his now-reissued 2003 documentary Last of the Mississippi Jukes is as much as a celebration as it is a eulogy. (Go to Mugge’s website for details, photos, and more.)
“We (as Americans) are doing more to preserve European classical music than we are to preserving American classical music” Freeman laments early in the film and you can’t help but think that race is involved there. Still, Freeman and club co-owner Bill Lockett did their part to keep the tradition alive and help rebuild Clarksdale by opening Madidi Restaurant and Ground Zero, where they took care to recreate the look and feel of the old time jukes with Christmas lights, beer signs and pool tables (and a sign that says “no, no, no, no out of town checks!”). Freeman himself grew up in Greenwood (1 hour south of the club) and wasn’t allowed to visit those ‘bucket of blood’ places where the blues wailed out of, though he would sneak out anyway to visit. As he recalls in the film, decades before that, field hands would come off back-breaking broiling days picking cotton to blow off steam and congregate in these small shacks.
“Sometimes people are ashamed of who they are- they wanna run away from that,” another actor tells us later in the film. Chris Thomas King was featured in the Coen brothers’ (arguably best) movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, playing a blues man, as he’s done off screen for years now. Thomas knows of what he speaks of, and not just in his own career- his dad ran Tabby’s Blues Box, which also closed its doors. Indeed, Mississippi comes up woefully short on cultivating its own musical history when compared to states like Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas. Truth be told, New York, Chicago and other northern cities are also pretty pitiful when it comes to toasting their own local talent. (Pictured: Mugge with musician Chris Thomas King.)
Speaking of pitiful, the scenes that Mugge documents at the Subway Lounge are especially disheartened when we learn its rich history and how even when it was nearing its coda, it was still a vibrant place to soak up the area talent. Co-owner King started the Lounge because other clubs would close early and musicians craved a place they could play into the wee hours of the morning- as such, it was not just a musical hub but also a place where musicians bonded and felt a kinship with each other. The Lounge was also crucial to the scene because as racially divided as the city was, the club was a place where races intermingled seamlessly otherwise. The racial mixers extended to the club’s own group, the House Rockers. Alongside the Rockers, the King Edwards Blues Band alternated as the house group, with other acts sitting in on gigs all the time. For a meager five bucks, you could experience its musical treasures and wash it down with a bucket of beer (recommended since there were no waiters) and a ‘blues dog’ sausage loaded with onions, chili, relish and peppers.
But there was a money-sucking cloud hanging over Subway in the form of a casino, which in addition to the slots and card games also had its own club to draw in local acts which would enjoy a better sound system and more pay if not the devoted crowd they’d find otherwise. Bigger name area venues also tried to glom off the historic music scene, offering the same amenities and better able to cash in on it. Wanna guess how the half-dozen or so juke joints around then fared against the big boys?
Mugge tells the discouraging tale of Subway and the scene through the eyes of area musicians who are best known to hardcore blues fans but definitely deserve more recognition. The performers also provide us with useful context, history and insight, including Vasti Johnson and Steve Cheeseborough, alongside historian Richard Waterman. Other times, we get the story from the songs themselves, including Jackson’s “Casino in the Cottonfield,” Greg Taylor’s “Subway Swing” and David Hughes, who provides the title song of the movie. To give us a taste of the scene, we also see Subway performances from noted songwriter George Jackson (“Cheating in the Next Room”), singer Patrice Moncell (aka Queen of the Blues), Bobby Rush (whose woman ran off with the “Garbage Man”; view a clip below) and Alvin Youngblood Hart (probably the biggest name here, performing solo and with a trio) among others.
But even with the rich pool of talent, the club had to contend not only with the casino but also highway construction, bureaucratic red tape and not enough props from the local government. A campaign to save Subway coalesced with a non-profit org backed by the local paper, some councilmen and donated labor in recognition of not just the music history but also the building’s connections to the Civil Rights movement. At the end of the film, we see a title panel showing us contact info for the Save the Subway fund and a dedication to Helen King (Jimmy’s wife) who ran Subway with him and died shorted after the filming ended.
In the postscript included as an extra with the recent DVD reissue, we get an update where we see Harris standing in front of crane taking down the dilapidated building in hopes of ultimately rebuilding the place. But there wasn’t enough money to cover the repairs which led to more demolition and flooding. Ultimately, Subway held its last show in April 2003, closing its doors the following month and the rest of the building was demolished the following year. As a post-postscript, further info reveals that the highway came into place and the spot where Subway stood is now a grassy, empty lot with a plaque commemorating the club.
A mixed fate, at best, was in store for the other clubs there. While Ground Zero still hosts shows from Wednesdays through the weekend, Madidi restaurant went under in 2012, 930 Cafe closed about five years ago and Club Ebony is only open for special events. Another local juke joint a half hour south of Clarksdale called Po Monkey’s (which dates back to ’61) is now in limbo since its owner recently died. On the plus side, the Delta Blues Museum just got one and a half million dollars to upgrade their exhibits (which means that the state boosts history but not the here/now) and the Wolf festival now lives on as the Black Prairie Blues Festival. Local writer/educator George Light reports that Clarksdale still has its share of music thanks to area festivals and that some of the Subway acts congregated around a restaurant two hours south of Clarksdale (near where the 930 Blues Cafe stood) for a blues night until the eatery also went belly up about five years ago.
Though Mugge’s doc paints a grim picture, you feel grateful that at least he took time to document the Mississippi blues scene at its root, even if it’s been fading for years.
Luckily, if you wanna support the scene, you have some options- you can boost the Delta Blues Museum at http://www.deltabluesmuseum.org, the Blues Foundation (based in Memphis) at http://blues.org, and the Mississippi Blues Foundation & its Blues Trail at http://www.msbluestrail.org. If there’s enough backing, maybe Mugge could do a sunnier follow-up doc.