January-February 2008


By David Bragger

About a month ago during an epic San Francisco tattoo excursion, I stopped by Amoeba Records. Despite the condition that the Japanese tattoo master Shige left my leg in, I still felt compelled to limp and whine my way into the Amoeba’s music megalopolis. As usual I picked up a couple JSP box sets. It you aren’t aware of this label you need to be. They reissue massive amounts of early country, old-time, blues, Hawaiian, bluegrass etc.  The greatest aspect of JSP Records is the price.  Usually the product is a 4 CD box set for $25! The sound quality is excellent, the notes are thorough, but the packaging is minimal. What do you expect for only $25? In the end, it’s the music we want and JSP really delivers. So. I finally picked up the Sleepy John Estes/Yank Rachell set and noticed something else available: That’s What They Want—Jook Joint Blues—Good Time Rhythm & Blues 1943-1956. I was curious.


On my way back to Los Angeles, I could not believe my ears. As a lover of early acoustic blues I was not expecting to be blown away. But I was. The overdriven, primitive, raw power of these tracks felt like adrenalin explosions at times. Papa Lightfoot’s guttural throat attack in Wine, Women, Whiskey left me giddy. I never thought electric blues could sound like this. Each track is a black diamond in the rough. Nothing is polished. In fact, many of these tracks made me feel ambiguously dirty, like I was listening to something forbidden and underground. Chicken Hearted Woman contains more memorable music moments. Opening with a crude overdriven guitar, we hear the passionate yet minimalist musings of a chicken-hearted mistress by singer Clarence Samuels. Among the memorable lines: “I tried to change you, I tried to get that chicken out your blood.” Another point of interest is the guitar. It imitates the sounds of a chicken just as old-time fiddles cluck in many of the chicken-themed Appalachian tunes.

This set contains tunes from artists such as Schoolboy Cleve, Frank Lee Sims, Earl Hooker, Pinebluff Pete, Guitar Gable, Duke Bayou, Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown and Coy “Hot Shot” Love. However, in order to fully appreciate the music on this set, a track-by-track breakdown won’t suffice. The listener needs to know the environment of the music: the jook joint. Neil Slaven’s liner notes contain some very descriptive quotes to help elucidate what one does in these dark and wondrous gathering dens.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Jook is the word for Negro pleasure house.” Not only was it the gathering spot for dancing, drinking, and gambling but it’s been the domain of blues since itsOTOJookJoint-1.jpg infancy. Hurston wrote, “The singing and playing in the true Negro style is called “jooking.”

When describing these jook joints fiddler/mandolinist Howard Armstrong, aka Louie Bluie, stated it was “the black man’s club…it was a place that opened its doors, you might say, to all comers. It was no place for snobs and what we black people call ‘saditty’ people. It means snobs, elite, upper crust and so forth. I know the first ones I played in, they had a wick stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle with oil, coal oil or kerosene, hanging around on the walls or even out on the trees, a line near the trees for light. Nobody wanted a lot of light in the first place. Well, every strata of society would be rubbing elbows or whatever part of their anatomy they were rubbing on the dance floor. And everybody seem to have a good time.”

Another character from Slaven’s liner notes described the jook joint as “a den of malt liquor, sweat and blues.” I think that says it all.

David Bragger is a Los Angeles-based instructor and player of old time fiddle and banjo music. He also photographs, films, and collects the lore of traditional artists, from puppeteers in Myanmar to fiddlers of Appalachia http://www.myspace.com/davidbragger


All Columns by David Bragger