One Sunday night about five years ago, while standing inside the late Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Holly Springs, Miss., Matthew Johnson, founder of Fat Possum Records, confessed, “This is my church. This is where I come to worship.”
The hobbled-together shack, with hand-scrawled, misspelled signs outlining the rules; the scents of beer, barbecue and ripe bodies mingling; and extension cords crisscrossing the low ceiling like a precarious spider web, stood—barely—in stark contrast to the Rev. Al Green’s church, where I’d been that morning. I thought nothing on that trip would top hearing the gospel according to Rev. Al—until I caught Kimbrough’s friend, R.L. Burnside, and both bluesmen’s various heirs crank that sweatbox’s temperature even higher with their own form of gospel—the nitty-gritty, cotton-field-born blues.
I was there as a tourist, and my party had been warned not to carry fancy cameras, take photos without asking, or act in any way that might anger someone and provoke violence. Once inside, those warnings seemed groundless. There was a feeling of acceptance, of understanding borne by our shared appreciation for the music. Within minutes, we weren’t gawking tourists, we were fellow acolytes.
Juke joint veterans always remark about the communal spirit in these tightly packed rooms, where it doesn’t matter what color you are or how rich or poor, or even—if you come to jam on their miniscule stages—how talented you are. Everyone goes jukin’ to do one thing: transcend the mundanity of day-to-day life and experience moments of magic.
Kimbrough’s place looked like it was one spark away from oblivion, and sure enough, it burned down a few years ago. By then, documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge was already searching for funding so he could capture juke joint culture for posterity.
Mugge, who’s focused his lenses on zydeco, reggae, soul, indigenous Louisiana and Hawaiian music and several individual artists in 21 documentaries, had already done two Mississippi-based blues films: Deep Blues, a collaboration with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and the late writer Robert Palmer, and Hellhounds on My Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson, in association with the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But he had a trilogy in mind, and time was running out.
“The goal was to show that traditional Mississippi blues culture was still thriving in the place where it was born,” Mugge says. “But as I continued going down to Mississippi to shoot and to attend festivals, I started realizing that the subculture was drying up.”
The reasons were myriad: many of the rickety jukes had caved in; owners were dying off and their kids preferred rap; ex-patrons were spending their money in the casinos that had sprouted like ugly weeds in the flat Delta cotton fields; and hard drugs had decimated local scenes. Once there were hundreds of jukes where live music could be heard all night long; now only a handful remain.
Mugge had intended to document several jukes for his latest film, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, but because of economics and a compelling story, he switched his focus to the Subway Lounge in Jackson. The Subway was still going strong but was threatened with destruction because of its location in the decrepit former Summers Hotel, the Delta region’s first inn to welcome touring black performers. The black-owned hotel had long since closed its doors and was slated for demolition. But a coalition of city officials and residents were trying to rescue the history-filled building and keep the Subway alive.
Mugge went to the Subway on a dare issued by blues guitarist Vasti Jackson after they met at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson. In a panel discussion addressing the worn-out issue of whether the “real” blues is dying, Mugge mentioned his goal to document juke joints. Jackson wanted to make sure Mugge didn’t dwell on the more modern, commercial operations posing as jukes.
“I said ‘You need to go across the tracks. These places still exist.’ … I was saying, ‘The blues ain’t dead. And the blues is not dying.’ … There are pockets that are still very vibrant. Whether those [jukes] exist or not, the roots are too deep for it to ever go away. But if you have an opportunity to experience the real thing, then go and do that.”
Mugge stepped inside the Subway and fell in love. Once actor Morgan Freeman, co-owner of the pre-9/11-named, juke-themed Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Miss. (a.k.a. ground zero of the blues, where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads), and actor-musician Chris Thomas King (of O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame), agreed to participate in his project, cable TV channel Black Starz! funded it.
The result, Last of the Mississippi Jukes, is one of Mugge’s best works. In his trademark slow-pan style, the director weaves together interviews, performances and moving clips of civil rights battles and other footage that puts the Southern black experience into historical context—and explains why the first juke joints existed on plantation property: they gave cotton pickers and sharecroppers who didn’t have money, civil liberties or much else a place to relax and let off steam.
“The Subway—and even the music—is not just about entertainment, it’s about living,” Jackson says after watching an opening-weekend screening of Mississippi Jukes at the American Film Institute’s new Silver Theatre and Center in Silver Spring, Miss. “The people are alive, and this is how they interface and relate, and the music, in the form of celebration, goes across all racial and ethnic lines. And when people come there, they really come to fellowship, [to] enjoy themselves; there is a true sense of community.”
Kindness and generosity replace bad vibes, he explains. “No one’s gonna go ‘Oh, you stepped on my shoe, you bumped me, I’m offended.’ It’s like one [united] audience. And that’s a wonderful experience.”
On the Junior’s Juke Joint website, self-described cultural anthropologist Junior Doughty confirms that. He says he’s never seen one fight in his years of visiting Delta jukes. But in white honky-tonks “of my own culture, [i.e.,] redneck,” he’s witnessed many fistfights, a knife fight, “and an actual Old West-style shootout.”
Mugge’s upbringing exposed him to both cultures. His mother was born in Birmingham, Ala.; his father, who holds a doctorate on black migration in the South, hails from Tampa, Fla., and taught at a black college in Atlanta before moving his family to Washington, D.C., then to Raleigh, N.C. That’s where young Bob’s musical awareness began.
“I had a radio from the age of four and just started listening to everything,” recalls Mugge, now 53. “Everything” included country, R&B and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. The Mugges relocated to Silver Spring when he was nine. There he became immersed in a vibrant, diverse music scene and attended many Motown revues at local theaters. “I just slowly got an appreciation for a pretty wide range of American music. But I have to say that Black music has touched me the most emotionally.”
That emotional connection helps him get even camera-skittish subjects to relax. “The one thing about Bob is that he is perceptive enough to let things happen and unveil naturally,” says Jackson. “And he doesn’t really intrude on the process. … He made sure he was very attentive, very hands on, and he was very aware that, for this to really be reflective of the actual experience—the interaction between the people, the musicians, the audience and everybody there—that the cameras needed to be as diminished visually as possible.”
Mike Jeck, a former film distributor who has known Mugge since buying distribution rights to his reggae film, Cool Runnings, agrees.
“Dramatic camera angles [and] flashy cutting, frankly, to my mind, are a big fat pain in the butt when you just want to sit down and listen and look,” Jeck says. “And he doesn’t just set the camera up and people perform in front of it; no, what he does is good filmmaking that serves the music and the performers.”
Mugge, who recently moved back to Silver Spring from suburban Philadelphia, was drawn to film while studying at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md. He made his first documentary as an undergrad, and two more after a year of grad school at Temple University in Philadelphia. Like his influences, Louis Malle and Ken Russell, Mugge came to believe that voice-over narration was too easy; he preferred to let his subjects do the talking. A camera-toting equivalent of John and Alan Lomax, he began traveling to capture their musical stories, partly because he couldn’t get funding to make the fictional features he had scripted, but could for the music films he thought would be his hobby.
“I got typed for doing that—and didn’t really mind,” Mugge says. “I figured I wanted to be the best at something.”
It’s difficult to secure funding for most films, but for Mugge it seems even more so because he sometimes experiences strained relations with his backers. Opinions vary as to whether that’s caused by his own temperament, typical misunderstandings or tight purse strings.
“As an independent filmmaker, you need to raise somewhere between hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars,” Mugge says. He calls it a miracle that films like his exist at all, because the cost of making them is never recouped. He carries a lot of that debt himself—much of it remains from films for which he says this organization or that company never fully paid him.
“It’s like selling your soul to the devil, like the whole Robert Johnson thing,” he says of some of these dealings. “It’s just a constant where artistic endeavor meets financial interest meets conflicting egos.”
Jeck insists all good filmmakers have such conflicts. “Bob is both an easygoing and intense guy in alteration,” he adds. “If he didn’t have a dispute now and then with the money guys, pft, ha! Then I’d say, get off the Prozac, pal.”
Mugge says he’s simply got a mission. “You do what you have to do to get done what you feel should be done.”