Pig races? Monkeys riding dogs? Slide guitar, with somebody singing about the devil and hard, hard times? No, it's not some hophead dream I'm describing here — these are just a few of the featured attractions at Saturday's annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But the music festival with a town-fair feel (and monkeys riding dogs) is just one eccentric opportunity for Delta folks to consider an endangered species: the American juke joint.
When's the last time you went to see a dance performance, and an Earnestine & Hazel's Soul Burger was included in the price of admission? These Walls: Tales from a Juke Joint blends dance and theater to tell the story of Memphis' favorite gentrified bordello, the girls who worked there, and artists who pounded out songs on the old piano. Dancer/choreographer Erin Walter describes These Walls as a night full of ghosts, and the evening includes a haunted performance set to a cello arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," narrated by Memphis industrialist Abe Plough, who once operated a pharmacy on the site.
- Leo Bud Welch
"He manufactured this antiseptic oil called Plough's Antiseptic Oil that was 46 percent alcohol and sold it all over the Southeast, kind of like a snake oil salesman," Walter says, running down high points from the notorious nightspot's colorful history. "My goal was to produce a show anybody would enjoy. Not so much dance lovers, but to make something the average Joe might find interesting or cool."
In an early visit to see if a show might be feasible in the space, the jukebox came on by itself. "It was playing, 'Human Nature,'" Walter says. "It seems like Earnestine & Hazel's kinda wanted us to use it," she says. "They say it's the original owners making the jukebox play. That's their way of still trying to manage the place."