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V/A - We Juke Up in Here

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Artist: V/A

Album: We Juke Up in Here

Label: Broke & Hungry

Review date: May. 15, 2012

“After he’s gone, that’s it.” - Terry “Harmonica” Bean

Those prophetic words set a bittersweet stage for We Juke Up in Here. Though they were spoken in the film’s precursor, M is for Mississippi and in specific reference to bluesman Cedell Davis, they represent a recurring theme of inevitable erosion writ large for the state’s traditional blues culture in general. Filmmakers Jeff Konkel and Roger Stolle both seem resigned to the reality, but redoubled in their efforts to preserve what’s left while there’s still time. Both men are about as deep into the Deep Blues as is possible without being performers themselves: Konkel as operator of the indispensable Broke & Hungry record label and Stolle as owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folkart Store in Clarkesdale that serves as a living repository of the genre.

This second film charts a similar structure to the first with Konkel, Stolle and a film crew traveling the Mississippi highways and by-ways in their Econoline van, dropping in on various venues and musicians for interviews and performances. Compared to their epic week-long odyssey of a few years prior documented on M, the sophomore itinerary is a more somber and truncated affair that comes to illustrate just how much has been lost in the interim between projects. The credits offer immediate mathematical evidence of attrition with nearly half the number of performers featured as its predecessor. M also had a pair of soundtrack discs where We Juke only warrants one (included with the DVD).

Konkel and Stolle share strong rapport with their subjects and the various interviewees run down the reasons for the continuing cultural depreciation of the music through personal anecdotes and observation. Several of the venues featured in the first film like The Do Drop Inn in Shelby have shuttered completely, while others have switched to DJs in lieu of bands to cut costs and stay solvent. Shifting musical tastes and the primacy of rap and urban soul have winnowed audience numbers. The recession and dwindling of disposable income along with increasingly stringent city ordinances have strangled off much of the market for the music as well. All of these elements make for edifying ethnomusicological study, but their disheartening repercussions seem to soak into every frame of film, coloring both the mood and momentum of the content. Additionally, an unexplained and distractingly invasive excising of spoken expletives in the interviews carries over from the first film.

Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale is the focal point for much of the footage, and the venerable venue takes on the mantle of a last bastion of the juke joint tradition within the film narrative. Proprietor Red Paden notes that people from all over the world come there to hear the blues and that his is pretty much the last juke standing that holds stalwartly to a live music policy. There’s a lot of pride audible in his assertion, but an undercurrent of wry bemusement, too, as if the writing is on the wall. The discouraging trend of records replacing live performances as a business model for venues is nothing new, but it cuts particularly deep in this context where the music steeps so heavily in spontaneity, vernacular and improvisation. That sort of idiosyncratic alchemical magic is vividly evident in the valuable performance outtakes included in the special features section of the DVD, where familiar blues topics and tropes get spun into variants ragged, ramshackle and new by the likes of “Duck” Holmes and the above-mentioned “Harmonica” Bean. Together the surviving musicians sustain a sliver of aural optimism — their art form may be dying, but it ain’t dead yet.

By Derek Taylor

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