Po’ Monkey’s

Po’ Monkey’s - Merigold

The rural juke joint played an integral role in the development of the blues, offering a distinctly secular space for people to socialize, dance, and forget their everyday troubles. While many such jukes once dotted the cotton fields of the Delta countryside, Po’ Monkey’s was one of the relatively few to survive into the 21st century. Initially frequented by locals, Po’ Monkey’s became a destination point for blues tourists from around the world during the 1990s.

Po’ Monkey’s, one of Mississippi’s most famous juke joints, was also the residence of Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. According to Seaberry, he opened for business c. 1963. He worked as a farmer and continued to live here and operate the club on certain afternoons and nights. By the 1990s Po’ Monkey’s was attracting a mixed crowd of locals as well as college students from Delta State University and blues aficionados in search of “authentic” juke joints. The dramatic décor both inside and outside the club also attracted attention from news outlets including the New York Times and noted photographers including Annie Leibovitz; Mississippi’s Birney Imes, who featured the club in his 1990 book Juke Joint; and Will Jacks, in his 2019 book Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint.

Despite such notoriety, Po’ Monkey’s in many ways continued to typify the rural juke joint, furnished with a jukebox, a pool table, beer posters stapled to the walls, and Christmas lights strung across the walls and ceiling. Modern juke joints were preceded by informal “jookhouses” that were actually tenants’ houses on plantations. Residents would clear the furniture from the largest room and spread sawdust on the floor in preparation for an evening, and often sold fried fish and homemade liquor to those who gathered for music, dancing, and gambling. Such gatherings were called house parties, fish fries, Saturday night suppers, balls, or frolics. Many musicians recall first hearing blues at jookhouses run by neighbors or family members. Some artists, including Muddy Waters, ran their own jukes in Mississippi. In the 1930s, coin-operated phonographs became widely distributed throughout the South and quickly became known as “jukeboxes.” Thereafter, most music at juke joints was provided not by live performers but by jukeboxes and, later, by deejays.

The term “juke”—sometimes spelled “jook,” pronounced to rhyme with “book” rather than “duke”— may have African or “Gullah” origins, and scholars have suggested meanings including “wicked or disorderly,” “to dance,” and “a place of shelter.” Used as a noun, “juke” commonly refers to small African American-run bars, cafes, and clubs; as a verb, it refers to partying. It has also come to mean a shifty move by a football player. The term first appeared on recordings in the 1930s, including a 1936 session in Hattiesburg by the Mississippi Jook Band. “Juke” gained widespread recognition in 1952 as the title of a hit blues record by Little Walter. Establishments in towns and cities eventually replaced most rural juke joints, but jukes continued to occupy an important place in the imagination of blues fans and performers. Mississippians Little Milton, Lee Shot Williams, Bill “Howlin’ Madd” Perry, and Johnny Drummer sang and composed new songs about jukes, and in 2004 Clarksdale established an annual “Juke Joint Festival” to celebrate the city’s down-home venues.

This is marker No. 79 on the Mississippi Blues Trail, originally dedicated June 22, 2009, and revised October 26, 2022. Po’ Monkey had a fence erected to protect the marker, and stayed in business until his death here at home on July 12, 2016, at the age of 75. His younger brother Po’ Teddy died on November 11, 2018.

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