Them Demolition Ball Blues

Robert Mugge looks for Last of the Mississippi Jukes

It's no slight to Robert Mugge, a longtime maker of blues-tinged documentaries, to suggest his latest offering is a bit slight. Mugge, responsible for such important documents as Deep Bluesand Hellhound on My Trail, simply couldn't help it, as most of the juke joints--shacks in the middle of cotton fields, storefronts in Delta ghost towns--have gone the way of Mississippi John Hurt. They've been torn down, abandoned to the ages, mowed down in the name of progress; as singer-guitarist Vasti Jackson notes in Last of the Mississippi Jukes, the newly minted casinos in the cornfields have swiped the best players and the audiences' pocket change. There will come a day, this doc suggests, when the juke joint is as mythical as the Clarkson, Mississippi, crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul.

You know you're in trouble early on, when producer David Hughes, serving as interviewer, spends a long time interviewing Morgan Freeman about his neo-juke joint--Ground Zero in Clarkson--and how it's made to look "authentic," down to the flea-market furniture; Freeman's noble intentions aside, it's a bit like doing a music doc from the front steps of a Hard Rock Café. Well served is the 60-plus-years-old Subway Lounge, the first black-owned biz in Jackson, but so much of the film was shot inside the place you begin to wonder why it's not called Down in the Subway. You're left wanting more of the archival footage and less of the new blues performed by the likes of Alvin Youngblood Hart and Chris Thomas King; it all sounds too much like a night at Blue Cat Blues, before it ran out of lives.

Chris Thomas King, known as Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is one of many musicians to lament the death of the juke joint.
Chris Thomas King, known as Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is one of many musicians to lament the death of the juke joint.

But, hey, it's the "Year of the Blues," right? So said the Senate; so say Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood and Win Wenders and several other, uh, bluesy filmmakers finishing their installments of a forthcoming PBS series (how friggin' PBS, too). So says NPR and its 13-part series on the blues and accompanying book. Better stock up, then, on those Muddy Waters best-ofs, before Borders sells out. Don't wanna look square, dig? Man, and I was just getting into techno.

 
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