Florida’s Juke Joints

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, if you had plenty of money and a city’s worth of entertainment at your disposal, you might have chosen to spend your Friday evening at the movies, a night club, or a high-quality restaurant. If, however, you were in rural Florida and looking for something a little less formal and a heap less expensive, you were more likely to drive out to the local juke joint.

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The name “juke joint” was given to the hundreds of dive bars similar to the one pictured above that once appeared all over the state during the early to mid-20th century. They were especially prevalent in rural areas, near sawmills, turpentine camps, and other places with lots of everyday folks who might want to relax a bit without having to get too dressed up to do it.

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The origin of the term “juke” is somewhat in dispute, but in Stetson Kennedy’s Palmetto Country, he explains that African-Americans first developed these establishments, since they were barred from saloons and other entertainment venues operated by whites. After Prohibition ended in 1933, however, juke joints for whites began to appear as well.

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

As newspaper accounts and former patrons often explain, juke joints were distinguished by their relaxed, laissez-faire atmosphere. Here, once away from downtown and out from under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye, both men and women could let their hair down a bit and enjoy a few drinks, loud music, and the sort of lowbrow entertainment that might have sent their mothers into a fainting spell.

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Depending on the place and time, the music came either from a jukebox or a live performance, and there was usually someplace to dance. The kind of music played depended on the source and the crowd. If the joint had a jukebox, the crowd might select anything from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” – whatever was popular at the time. If live music was available, blues, country, or jazz might be the order of the day. Blues music was particularly popular in juke joints operated for and by African-Americans, featuring songs with titles like “Mistreatin-Mama,” “Rattlesnake Daddy,” and Drinkin My Blues Away.” A number of Florida’s blues and folk personalities, such as Marie Buggs and “Washboard” Bill Cooke, got their start playing in juke joints.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke with cymbals and his signature washboard. During Cooke’s early childhood, his mother operated a juke joint, where the young Cooke was first exposed to music and dance (photo 1993).

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

The names of these watering holes reflected their no-frills character. Most were simply named for their owners, such as Benny’s Place near Brooksville, and Baker Bryan’s, just south of the Florida-Georgia border on U.S. 1 near Hilliard. Others were named more creatively, or at least nicknamed creatively, as was the case with the Bucket of Blood at Jug Island in Taylor County, and the Mystery Ship near Sarasota. The signs that hung in some of these establishments were as colorful as the names. Most were designed to ward off some of the bad behavior that often occurred, including fighting, swearing, and stretching credit just a little too far. Below is a list Stetson Kennedy typed in the 1930s of some of the juke joint signs he encountered while traveling the state as a folklorist for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.

A page from Stetson Kennedy's notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers' Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

A page from Stetson Kennedy’s notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers’ Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

While weary laborers and the younger crowd in general found juke joints to be a convenient form of relaxation, parents, teachers, the clergy, and law enforcement often considered them a nuisance at best and an ominous threat to the morals of the community at worst. The correspondence of Florida’s governors contains numerous examples of telegrams, letters, and resolutions calling for some kind of action to counteract the bad influence of these establishments on youth and workers. Local and state law enforcement officials did raid and shut down juke joints from time to time, usually on the suspicion of prostitution or selling liquor illegally.

A telegram to Governor Guller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

A telegram to Governor Fuller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

Despite the trouble associated with juke joints, the concept was popular, and at one time even attracted the attention of Hollywood. In 1942, Warner Brothers released “Juke Girl,” featuring Ann Sheridan as a Florida juke joint hostess, along with Alan Hale, Richard Whorf, and Ronald Reagan. Yes, that Ronald Reagan.

Times have changed, and most of the juke joints of old have changed considerably or shut down entirely. This is not to say, of course, that cutting loose and having a good time ever went out of style. But “juking” the way it once was done in the seedier but livelier places of Florida back in those days is fast becoming the stuff of history.

Do you have photographs of a Florida juke joint? Were you ever a participant in the festivities? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!

Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins

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This soulful blues tune is performed here with foreboding intensity by John Cephas and Phil Wiggins at the 1991 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” was originally penned and recorded in 1931 by delta blues legend Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James.

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1991

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins performing at the Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, 1991

Guitarist John Cephas (1930-2009) and harmonica player Phil Wiggins (1954- ), legends in their own right, were an acoustic blues duo hailing from Washington D.C. The pair were known for their Piedmont blues style, but as you can hear in the audio clip above, they perfectly capture the essence of “Skip” James’ delta blues. If this song sounds familiar to you, it was also performed in the Coen Brother’s film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by musician and actor Chris Thomas King.

1977 Portable Folk Festival

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The 1977 Portable Folk Festival was organized by the National Folk Festival Association as a way to showcase musicians from the Southeastern United States. The tour, hosted by folklorists Guy Carawan and Cece Conway, featured bluesman Johnny Shines from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, coal miner and balladeer Nimrod Workman, Bessie and Vanessa Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and the North Carolina-based Red Clay Ramblers string band.

People dancing at the Portable Folk Festival - White Springs, Florida

People dancing at the Portable Folk Festival – White Springs, Florida

With a grant from the Florida Bicentennial Commission, the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center curated the Series of American Folk Music in 1977. In addition to the Portable Folk Festival, the series also brought Pete Seeger, Doc and Merle Watson, Jean Ritchie, and the Kingston Trio to the Stephen Foster Memorial amphitheater.

Johnny Shines (R) playing banjo with folksinger/guitarist Guy Carawan at the Portable Folk Festival - White Springs, Florida

Johnny Shines (R) playing banjo with folksinger/guitarist Guy Carawan at the Portable Folk Festival – White Springs, Florida

This podcast features performance highlights from Johnny Shines, Nimrod Workman, Bessie and Vanessa Jones and the Red Clay Ramblers recorded April 16, 1977, at the Portable Folk Festival.

Drop on Down in Florida

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Florida was the only southern state to experience an increase in its African-American population in the first half of the 20th century. At a time when many southern black Americans were moving North in search of a better life, African-Americans from other parts of the South migrated to the Sunshine State due to its warm climate and the hope of year-round employment opportunities in the state’s varied agricultural industries.

View of workers harvesting oranges – Winter Garden, Florida

With this migration came distinct cultural traditions, in which music—both sacred and secular—played a large role. In the late 1970s, the Florida Folklife Program retraced the groundbreaking fieldwork conducted in the 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in Florida. This project involved identifying and recording folk artists maintaining African-American sacred and secular music traditions in the same communities documented by Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy and other fieldworkers approximately 50 years earlier. The result was a double LP released in 1981 titled Drop on Down in Florida: Recent Field Recordings of Afro-American Traditional Music. Although the records were a valuable educational tool, they had relatively small impact at the time, and have been long unavailable to the public.

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow at a vegetable stand- Waverly, Florida

Moses Williams playing the diddley bow at a vegetable stand – Waverly, Florida

In 2012, the Florida Folklife Program, the State Archives of Florida and Dust-to-Digital, a Grammy award-winning record label, collaborated to release Drop on Down in Florida: Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music 1977 – 1980. This is an expanded book and two-CD reissue of the double LP the Folklife Program released in 1981. The original audio recordings and many of the photographs from the fieldwork conducted for Drop on Down in Florida are now part of the Florida Folklife Collection housed at the State Library and Archives of Florida.

M.L. Long leading sacred harp singing at S.E. Alabama & Florida Union Sacred Harp Sing - Campbellton, Florida

M.L. Long leading sacred harp singing at S.E. Alabama & Florida Union Sacred Harp Sing – Campbellton, Florida

To celebrate the completion of this project, we’ve created a podcast with State Folklorist and co-editor of the book, Blaine Waide, detailing some of the work involved in the reissue process, as well as previewing a selection of field recordings made for Drop on Down in Florida. You can learn more about Drop on Down in Florida: Field Recordings of African American Traditional Music 1977 – 1980 by visiting Dust-to-Digital’s website.

Happy Birthday Charles Atkins (October 23, 1944)

Sir Charles Atkins, also known as Professor of the Blues, has been letting us know that “the blues is alright” since he first sat down at the communal piano in his dorm at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. Atkins is a notable performer, recording artist and teacher. He’s toured the country and shared the stage with multiple groups including the D and B Romeos, who he joined at the School for the Deaf and the Blind, and the Blues Boys. When he’s not playing out live or in the studio, the Professor of the Blues teaches the Blues Lab at Florida State University. In addition to teaching at FSU, Atkins also participated in the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program (1995-96). Charles Atkins was awarded the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2002 for his musical accomplishments and willingness to share his knowledge and experience with others.

In honor of his birthday, please enjoy two selections from Sir Charles Atkins’ appearances at the Florida Folk Festival:

“Key to the Highway”

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More Info: Catalog Record, Where the Palm Trees Shake at Night: Blues Music from the Florida Folklife Collection

“Little Run-A-Round”

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For more information about his life, upcoming performances and discography, visit the Charles Atkins homepage at http://www.downhomebluesband.com