(Juke Joints of old seem a lot like what we Canadians call Taverns or Dive Bars today. Perhaps there isn’t the racial divide there was in the southern United States when juke joints were at their peak, but the rowdy nature of these establishments sure feels a lot like the taverns I’ve come to love. Regardless, the music that must have come out of these southern juke joints must have been something special indeed. Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint in Atlanta is one of these special places, and here is what those fine folks have to say about the origin of these historic venues. – FATS)
Like the bars of today, juke joints catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after the emancipation. Primarily African-American establishments, juke joints were opened in the southeastern United States during the era of the Jim Crow Laws. Since black sharecroppers and plantation workers were barred from white establishments, juke joints provided a space for these people to kick back after a long week of work. The word “juke” means disorderly in Gullah, meaning that these gathering spots were considered very rowdy for this era, frowned upon by many people during this time. People socialized with friends while eating, drinking, and gambling in these ramshackle buildings. During the era of prohibition, moonshine was a popular item distributed in these establishments, creating even more criticism from the outside community. Despite the criticism they received, juke joints affected the cultural structure of the southern United States, giving African Americans a place to get away from the pressures of society, and eventually giving them a voice.
The most influential aspect of juke joints was definitely the music. Some of America’s most popular music has its roots in the juke joints of the south. Originally, the music of juke joints relied on two instruments: the fiddle and the banjo. As time progressed, however, so did the music’s style. Ragtime and dance music of the late nineteenth century began in these establishments. Soon after that, the blues, barrel house, and the slow drag dance music of the rural south began to emerge. The music of today has many different influences, but the legacy of the juke joint is very clear in popular music today.
The legacy of juke joints has extended far beyond its influence on popular music. Commercial establishments such as our very own Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint were inspired by the juke joints of the south. Today, some of the better-preserved juke joint buildings are popular sites for tourists, serving as museums of history and culture in rural areas of the south. Juke joints have come a long way since their humble beginnings in rural crossroads, but these establishments have shaped the culture of southern America, and continue to do so today.