“Last of the Mississippi Jukes” is Robert Mugge’s exploration of Mississippi juke joints, the rustic, often dilapidated music venues where, early in the last century, itinerant blues musicians played for plantation workers and others, creating a powerful new music which soon migrated to Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and elsewhere. Of course, even as this music spread around the world, changing as it went, it continued to have a strong presence in the state where it was born, a fact clearly shown by Mugge’s 1991 film “Deep Blues.” And yet, in the decade after the release of “Deep Blues,” artists who had appeared in that earlier film began passing away, and the jukes where they and others had played, became increasingly scarce. So, Mugge decided to make a new film about what was being lost.
Funded by Starz Entertainment Group and premiered at the Starz Denver International Film Festival in November of 2002, “Last of the Mississippi Jukes” focused primarily on two well-known venues. One was the legendary Subway Lounge in Jackson, Mississippi, and the other was Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a new and more commercial enterprise that drew on virtues of the more modest venues that inspired it. The idea was not that these two music spots were, themselves, the last remaining places where live blues could be heard in Mississippi, but that they embodied important musical traditions which were slipping away.
The Subway Lounge was created by singer Jimmy King and operated by him and his wife Helen in the basement of Jackson Mississippi’s historic Summers Hotel. King arrived at the name “Subway,” because the entrance-way to his basement performance space reminded him of the subway stations he saw on trips to New York City. What makes the hotel itself historic is that it was black-owned during an era of entrenched segregation, and that, when it opened in 1944, it was the first in the region to offer accommodations to African Americans. However, for music fans, its bigger claim to fame was that, in 1966, owner W.J. Summers allowed King to open the Subway Lounge in the hotel’s basement, first as a jazz club, and then as a place to hear down-home blues performed late into the night.
By the time Mugge filmed there in the spring of 2002, the hotel had been shuttered for years, and parts of the building had fully collapsed. But the Subway itself was still open every Friday and Saturday night, from midnight till approximately 5am, with two bands, the House Rockers and the King Edward Blues Band, taking turns as its house band every second weekend. Joining these bands over the course of the night was a diverse group of singers and musician – some of them stopping by after their paid gigs elsewhere had ended. Together, they played a rich selection of blues standards, including plenty of “soul blues” classics from Jackson-based Malaco Records. As a result, on any given weekend, that dark and dusty room reverberated with joy.
For its part, Ground Zero was started by movie star Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale attorney (now mayor) Bill Luckett, in cooperation with former Blues Foundation executive director Howard Stovall. Together, they took an empty Clarksdale building close by the Delta Blues Museum and decorated it with the standard design elements of jukes – Christmas tree lights, pool tables, catch-as-catch-can furniture, and an overall makeshift sensibility – in order to endow it with the spirit of those traditional, ramshackle performance spaces. Of course, while Ground Zero’s well-stocked bar, trendy menus, and sometimes well-heeled patrons sound like the marks of a modern-day music club, their aspirations to make this venue like a juke offered valuable lessons as to what made those earlier venues so distinctive.
At the time the film was made, Ground Zero was not yet offering as much live musical performance as it soon would. So, Mugge brought in Memphis musician Alvin Youngblood Hart to perform for the evening, accompanied by local musicians Sam Carr and Anthony Sherrod. Mugge and co-producer David Hughes, a Mississippi-based musician and collector, also beefed up the usual Subway Lounge talent with appearances by Vasti Jackson, Bobby Rush, Eddie Cotton, Jesse Robinson, Lucille, Greg “Fingers” Taylor, Casey Phillips, Virgil Brawley, and actor and musician Chris Thomas King, all of whom had played the Subway in the past but, at present, were too busy with their own touring to make more than cursory appearances. Still, the Subway’s regular talent (including Patrice Moncell, Abdul Rasheed, Dennis Fountain, Pat Brown, Levon Lindsey, and J.T. Watkins), audience members, and owners represented the heart of the Subway experience, and that was true for the film as well.
“Last of the Mississippi Jukes” includes the following narrative threads: an illustrated introduction to Mississippi jukes, discussions of Ground Zero Blues Club and the Subway Lounge, a history of the Summers Hotel and the Civil Rights struggles that both preceded and accompanied it, and a portrait of the public movement to save the Subway Lounge after the building that housed it was condemned. Like most music documentaries, this film alternates between musical performance and related conversation, and interviewees of note include owners of both venues, Subway patrons, singers and musicians, Jackson politicians, a Jackson newspaper reporter, celebrated blues photographer Dick Waterman, and Mississippi blues author Steve Cheseborough.
“Last of the Mississippi Jukes” was first broadcast over the Black Starz channel (later renamed Starz in Black) in 2003. In addition, a commercial DVD and separate soundtrack CD were released the same year, yet both disappeared in 2007 when the releasing label went out of business. MVD’s new Special Edition DVD includes not only the original feature-length Documentary, but also the original Soundtrack Album and a Video Update created by Robert Mugge in 2005 while he was serving as Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
Also check out the movie’s tracklist: https://mvdb2b.com/
Below, watch a trailer for “Last of the Mississippi Jukes”: