While segregation reigned supreme in the South, black musicians found few establishments where they could play. However, these musicians could play on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” (named after a dish made of fried hog entrails) a string of run-down, black-owned establishments called “juke joints.” These small joints usually had a juke box for music when live musicians weren’t playing. The early circuit featured mostly local blues singers, but shortly after the end of WWII, a new and different kind of sound started to emanate from these small shacks; a music later dubbed “rock ‘n’ roll.”
Wikipedia explains: “Classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads, catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons, or providing cheap room and board.”
Another interpretation of “juke” is that it comes from the word joog, which means “wicked and disorderly” in Gullah, a Creole language in coastal South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. And that might be an understatement, considering the amount of violence that occurs in such establishments, usually over women or gambling money. As the owner of the Big Wheel juke near Navasota Texas puts it: “Come here at about 8pm, that’s about when the music, dancin’ and cuttin’ starts.”
Juke joints were also known as “roadhouses,” a term which dates back to antebellum taverns called “groggeries,” which dispensed questionable liquor in one room and had a gambling room attached. These establishments were mainly for white farmers on the search for “bust-head” (moonshine) whiskey and a good game of craps or a hand of poker. In the postbellum South, these roadhouses gave way to juke joints that featured music, of the blues variety. Interestingly, one of Texas’ biggest, and some say best, spare rib restaurant chains is still called the “Texas Roadhouse.”
Honky-tonks, another variety of jukes, sprang up around oil towns in Texas and Oklahoma, especially after the debut of the gasoline engine automobile. When Texas-born musician Al Dexter recorded his “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1935, the popularity of the term exploded and small juke-like establishments started being called “honky-tonks,” although the true meaning of the term is obscure. Modern blues enthusiasts will probably be more familiar with the Rolling Stones’ version called “Honky Tonk Women.”
Chitlin’ Circuit entertainers moved from one juke joint to the next as long-term performance contracts did not exist at the time. In fact, there were very few, if any contracts for performers in those early days. Mance Lipscomb once explained that he often performed at local gatherings such as picnics for “50 cents and a fish sandwich.” Well-known performers got a flat fee or a percentage of the gate, in larger venues. “Even Gladys Knight performed in a house band on the circuit early in her career, playing at what she called ‘roadside joints and honky tonks’ across the South. No menus. No kitchens. Just a grizzly old guy selling catfish nuggets, corn fritters or pig ear sandwiches in a corner,” says Reverb magazine.
One of the best visual presentations of how juke joints operated was in the 2007 film “Honeydripper,” starring Danny Glover. The versatile actor portrayed the owner of a juke joint by the same name in Alabama in the early 1950s. Interestingly, the establishment was located near a U.S. military base, so Honeydripper was trying to attract black soldiers with live blues music. However, customers then seemed more interested in a wilder new form of loud, electrified music, later known as “rock,” as it was easier to dance to than the slower, acoustical blues. The terminology must have also had a sexual appeal to these black soldiers and other African Americans as “rock” can be slang for “to make love,” or the more guttural equivalent. Thus songs like B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby, All Night Long” take on an entirely different meaning to black listeners.
Some performers learned how to sing the blues by going to juke joints and singing along with the jukebox, a feature of all such establishments. One was Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner who was born in Bellville Texas in 1932, but lived most of his life in Houston. He became a superstar on the Texas circuit, but was not well known nationally.
“Bonner learned to sing in a Gospel group, as well as standing by the juke-box, and when he got a guitar as a kid, he was determined to become a Bluesman…This multi-instrumentalist sometimes performed as a one-man-band, and he never had a hit record, but he wrote some excellent, perceptive songs about his hard life, his opinions on ‘race-relations’ and the economics of poverty,” says www.allaboutbluesmusic.com. “The American Blues Festival took Juke Boy on several tours of Europe, in the late 60s and 70s and he recorded several sessions in London. Sadly, none of his records sold well so he took manual jobs to keep body and soul together. Juke Boy continued to play local gigs around Houston and recorded for a few small labels, until he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1978.”
Juke Boy Bonner may not have chosen a typical route to blues fame, but his experience does illustrate a fundamental truth: juke boxes and juke joints played a more vital role in the development of blues music than many commentators, or even musicians, tend to believe.
Juke Boy Bonner: “Rock Me Baby”