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Juke joints keep the blues alive

When photographer Lou Bopp ventured out along Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, he wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

He began traveling between New York and his hometown of St. Louis in 2008 and had started photographing musicians.

By 2010, he ended up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, home to many legendary blues musicians. That’s where he discovered juke joints.

Their history is an oral one and a bit muddy, but the first documentation of juke joints showed up in 1903 when an orchestral bandleader wrote about a peculiar sound he heard at one, according to Juke Joint Festival founder Roger Stolle.

The descriptions provided in the text match up with what is known as the blues.

Dating back to the emancipation, juke joints were located on plantations and served as a gathering place for African-Americans living on the lands.

The establishments became known for wild Saturday nights filled with gambling, music, dancing and moonshine, Stolle said.

Bopp says he discovered juke joints when he tried to find out where the local musicians were hanging out.

“I think in the heyday, juke joints were a place known for live music,” he said. “These days it’s lesser known for live music, and more about jukeboxes.”

Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club was Bopp’s first exposure to the Southern bar experience, and he thought he had “struck gold.”

“Little did I know that wasn’t even coming close to what I ultimately found,” Bopp said.

Ground Zero, for example, has regular opening and closing hours, but Bopp said the family-owned establishment Blue Front Cafe opens as soon as owner Jimmy “Duck” Holmes picks up a guitar and starts playing.

Tourists as far as Europe show up to some of the joints for the nostalgia, but “for the regulars, that’s just where they go,” Bopp said.

He has become a familiar face around some of the bars, though he points out that a white man with a camera stands out. But he still feels welcome.

Juke joints may sound as if they are just local bars appealing to a local crowd, but their history is rooted in the American South, the birthplace of blues music.

Bopp said many of the establishments are off the beaten path. Sometimes they’re found in run-down buildings or sheds that dot the Blues Highway.

“I mean, that’s kind of the beauty of it, though,” he said. “An ice cold beer at 3 in the morning when it’s 90 degrees outside. And probably (hotter) inside.”

- Clint Alwahab, CNN