Greg Brownderville | Southwest Review | February 2018 | 23 minutes (4,227 words)

A native of the storied Delta region and a musician from the age of 6, I have met quite a few veteran bluesmen. The one who towers tallest in my memory is J.R. Hamilton. When I met J.R., in 2005, he was a slender, sturdy man in his 60s with the spark of a 20-something. Six days a week, he worked on a 4,500-acre farm near Marvell (pronounced marvel), a small town on the Arkansas side of the Delta. Sundays, he played the blues. In the years between 2005 and 2008, I played guitar and harmonica regularly at his Sunday parties. Shortly thereafter, J.R. moved to Memphis, I to Missouri, and my days as a member of his band came to an end.

I met J. R. the way folks meet folks in the Delta. The first part of this story, I warn you, sounds rather cartoonishly Southern, but is nevertheless true: One evening, just before dark, I stopped for pulled pork at a place in Marvell called Shadden’s Barbecue. A woman I had never met, named Pudding, sat down next to me at the communal table where diners dig in. We fell immediately into lively conversation. Toward the end of the meal, when I mentioned in passing that I played music, Pudding said if I wasn’t in a hurry, I should follow her out to “J.R.’s jook house” and sit in with the local blues band. I didn’t know exactly what I was in for, but it’s a matter of principle with me that when a delightful stranger named Pudding says to follow her to a jook, I say yes, ma’am.

To get me there, my poor old rickety vehicle had to jostle down a dirt road between cotton fields whose distant tree lines were barely discernible in the hazy light of dusk. J.R.’s tin-roof house stood alone in a spacious yard without a neighbor near. (It was clear we were well outside of Marvell’s city limits. In the years to come, I would ask J.R. on multiple occasions whether this patch of land had a name, only to get a different answer each time: Kingtown, Sand Hill, Turkey Scratch — once, J.R. said it had no name at all.) Dozens of friends were gathered on and around the raised porch, which doubled as a stage. The edges of its wooden planks looked like crooked mummy teeth, hackly where folks had long been scraping mud off their boots. Some planks were loose or missing entirely, but boards had been laid across the most treacherous trapdoor spaces.

J.R. sported cowboy boots and a feathered cowboy hat with his ample hair puffing out over his ears. A small, golden African mask, attached to a necklace, dangled against the chest of his colorful Southwestern button-up. He wore a large ring on his chording hand and blue jeans with a belt buckle so big and bright it called to mind a boxer’s title strap.

J.R. Hamilton. Photo by Luke Duncan

Microphones, amplifiers, instruments, and cables arrayed in readiness on the front porch, J.R. not only asked me to man one of his guitars but also invited me to play his “harps,” a gesture of trust between harmonicists. To make music on his harps, I would have to maneuver around several blown reeds, but I was used to that, since my own harps were often similarly damaged. He handed me a homemade guitar pick, knifed out of a piece of plastic. The shape resembled that of Arkansas.

Pudding slung her arm around me and shouted, “J.R.! If this boy can blues, remember: I’m the one invited him. If he can’t blues, it’s all your fault for handing him this guitar.” J.R. howled a boisterous laugh. But then he said with a serious, almost-preacherly voice, “Listen. We tickled to have this young man here tonight. I believe we done found us a new friend in blues.”

“Don’t you mean I found us a new friend in blues?!” Pudding said.

“That’s right, Pudd’n,” J.R. conceded with a grin. “And I’m mighty thankful you did. I’m mighty thankful you did.”

With that, J.R. said, “Let there be blues,” and struck his black electric guitar. I smooched a harp, stepped up to a mic, and waited. J.R.’s intro sounded big, mouthy, and irrefutable. As the bass and drums kicked in tight behind him, I made my first note warp like a train whistle dopplering through the darkness. The music was a rustic rendition of Chicago blues. On the mangy grass all around the porch, revelers danced as if they had wasps up their pants legs. It was a peak moment in my music-making life.

Bob Dylan says of Muddy Waters that he plugged Mississippi into an amplifier but never forsook “the dark woods.” Swap out “Mississippi” for “Arkansas,” and we’re talking about J.R.

* * *

“The past,” William Faulkner famously wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” Until I experienced the scene at J.R.’s house, I thought his kind of jook party was a thing of the past. Old folks in the Delta had often told me I was 80 years or so too late to find an old-time jook, but there it was in 2005: Live blues on the front porch of someone’s home, drinking and dancing, card games for money, and barbecue. J.R. was the chef for his parties, and his smoke-and-tang sauce tasted like his guitar sounded.

Parents brought young children, who climbed around on J.R.’s tractor while men and women of all ages danced, ate, and shared stories, the women playing card games called Deuces Wild and Georgia Skins. On weekends I often drove from my apartment, across the river in Mississippi, to join the festivities. J.R.’s particular style of blues party had died out almost everywhere else, but somehow the jook tradition had negotiated the dramatic vicissitudes of modern American life and found its way into 21-century Phillips County, Arkansas. Weekend after weekend, there I was, harp in hand, smack in the middle of the past-not-even-past.

With that, J.R. said, ‘Let there be blues,’ and struck his black electric guitar.

Or at least that’s what I thought. Shortly before my first night there, I had read Zora Neale Hurston’s description of the jook as she had experienced it. In many particulars, right down to the dialectal usages Hurston highlights, the scene at J.R.’s matched her account. I could feel her words coming to life around me. Looking back, I see that my initial take on J.R.’s jook house was the interpretive equivalent of a bad pun on Marvell: without questioning the accuracy of my reading, I marveled at this blues scene ostensibly uninterrupted and unfazed despite the thousand unnatural shocks of modernity. As I learned more about J.R. and his story, I realized some of my initial assumptions did not square with the facts.

What was it about Marvell that had helped it hold on to its jook tradition? First, let it be said: if we tried to imagine a community that might act as a time capsule, preserving the old-school Delta jook house, we’d probably think of a place like Marvell, Arkansas. According to the 2000 census, Marvell, with a population of 1395, had a black majority of 58 percent, with roughly 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The lives of J.R. and his friends were dictated by agrarian rhythms, so that, for example, during harvest season they couldn’t make time for parties.

In addition, Marvell possesses a rich blues history — and a rich sense of that history. J.R. once told me, “When I was a kid, we used to make guitars upside the house. We’d nail some nails upside the house and tighten the wires up, you understand. And then we’d cut a little piece of wood, slant it, and then, as we’d play, we’d push it over the wire, you know, and it makes a sound.” J.R. also said that blues musicians around Marvell “used to play washtub bass, and they would blow bottles, too.” In a downtown nightclub, one of the walls was lined with high-quality black-and-white photographs of Delta bluesmen, some internationally famous and some, such as the late John Weston, known primarily in Arkansas.

Just down the road from Marvell lies the famous blues city of Helena, home of the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. Helena is also home to King Biscuit Time, a blues radio show on KFFA and — with its 91-year-old host, “Sunshine” Sonny Payne — the longest-running daily radio broadcast in America. J.R. was born on a plantation in the Helena area, which many blues greats, including Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson, once called home. Certainly, this region, if any, boasts the kind of blues heritage that might have sustained a jook culture from the post-Reconstruction era clear into the mid-aughts. But the real story, with its many hidden twists, is far more complex than that.

When J.R. was growing up, house-party jooks were common in and around Marvell. He remembered hearing of them at the age of 14 or 15. “Peoples would talk about them,” he said, “and they would tell me what all went on out there. But my parents wouldn’t let me go, because I was too young.” Many Deltans think of blues as the Devil’s music. J.R.’s father and paternal grandmother, who jointly taught him to play piano when he was five, were both gospel musicians who disapproved of secular music, especially the blues. J.R. said, “I was such a wild kid at the time. They was a old bluesman called Piano Red, and that dude could rare some blues on a piano, and every time [my grandmother] would tell me to play ‘Precious Lord,’ while she was in there I’d hit it, but when she leave out, man, I’d hit Piano Red. She come back in there and tear them knuckles up with one them big ole, long pencils — just tear my knuckles up.”

J.R.’s folks were not wrong to see some danger in the jook. Blues scholar Adam Gussow writes that

blues culture is, or was until recently, a culture permeated by intimate violence, both figurative and real, threatened (or promised) and inflicted. When I speak of “blues culture,” I am referring to an African American blues culture that evolved in southern jooks during the post-Reconstruction years, spread to the urban north with the help of a race-records boom and several Great Migrations, and remained relatively intact into the 1960s. When I speak of “intimate violence,” I am speaking …about the violence that black folk inflict on each other.

Gussow lists “cuttings, shootings, razor slashings, beatings, and murders” as examples of intimate violence. Despite the danger, J.R. longed to experience the jook scene, and he never forgot about it. By the 1960s, when he was old enough to go and do as he pleased, Marvell’s blues-party tradition had died out. The area’s music scene had moved to the local clubs, several of which drew enthusiastic black crowds, but at these venues, blues was being supplanted by newer genres as black musical tastes changed.

By 1960 most of Marvell’s finest bluesmen had moved to Chicago. J.R.’s uncle Leon Boyd (a.k.a. Big June), known as a powerful vocalist, and a great blues guitarist named Vernon Anderson migrated north a few years before J.R. In the early ’60s, when J.R. was 23 years old, he followed Boyd and Anderson in hopes of making a better living. “Down here,” J.R. explained to me, “the hours was too long and the pay too little.” Also, Chicago promised him the personal freedom to play whatever music and frequent whatever places he wished. He could finally escape the protective vigilance and sometimes-stifling religiosity of the homefolk.

What J.R. found in Chicago was a Marvell away from Marvell. “A bunch of my friends was up there,” he said, “and we partied with Marvell people, did business with Marvell people, and played music with Marvell people. Every year, peoples from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee would gather in the park for a big event called the Arkansas Ball.” At this point in his life, J.R. had many years of playing piano and harp and a few years of drumming under his belt, but he “didn’t know a thing about guitar.” He said, “I couldn’t shake a tail feather on piano ’cause you had to sit still to play it. I wanted something I could strap across my chest and go.” In Chicago, Anderson taught J.R. how to play guitar. “He was the guy,” J.R. said, eager to credit his mentor, “who really sat me down and showed me all my licks and chords. Vernon and Leon and them knew more than I did, and I wanted to learn.” Although J.R. was making inroads as a lead guitarist, he normally played bass when he and his buddies from Marvell jammed.

“What I found out was,” J.R. told me, revealing a fascinating piece of blues history, “the house parties that had left Marvell had done moved up to Chicago with Vernon and Leon. We would get together at somebody’s place and rehearse, ’cause we was playing a gig every weekend. The rehearsal would turn into a party, with all our friends from down home dancing and cutting up like they used to do in Marvell at the jooks; only, up north it was usually indoors. I finally got the chance to be a part of that scene.” This account points up the social importance of the music, which sparked the distinctive rituals of the jook.

‘I couldn’t shake a tail feather on piano ’cause you had to sit still to play it. I wanted something I could strap across my chest and go.’

J.R. became a jack-of-all-trades in Chicago. He worked as a chef, an interior decorator, a roofer, and a manager and deejay at two nightclubs. In his work as a deejay and a musician, it was J.R.’s business to learn the musical tastes of his audiences. By the time he reached Chicago, the Blues Revival had begun. The days of blues as a hot commercial genre were past. Blues had instead become a “folk” music championed by white fans who had only recently discovered it. At the clubs where J.R. played gigs as part of Vernon’s band, he was surprised to find himself entertaining enthusiastic white listeners. They made pilgrimages to Chicago to hear the blues pioneered by Delta natives like Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. In 1964, close to when J.R. arrived in town, legendary Delta bluesman Son House played a concert at the University of Chicago. A university concert of this sort was a far cry from the jook scene over which House had once presided in Mississippi. It was also much different from the Chicago clubs where Muddy Waters had played commercial hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready” in his heyday a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the tastes of black fans in Chicago were moving increasingly toward soul and R&B. A similar trend emerged concurrently in the Delta, where a genre known as Southern soul — a mix of blues, soul, and R&B — gained ascendancy.

* * *

“The city wasn’t my bag; Arkansas is home” — that was J.R.’s answer when I asked him why he had left Chicago in 1998 and returned to Marvell. Another time I asked the question, he mentioned the dissolution of his marriage as a key factor. The woman he married in Chicago replaced his mother and grandmother as an assertive presence discouraging his involvement in the blues. “My wife didn’t go for it,” J.R. said, with reference to his weekend work as a bluesman in Chicago. “She was a jealous kind of a person. I finally got to the place I just quit playing blues altogether — trying to keep my family together, you know.” In the late ’90s, after he and his wife divorced, J.R. moved back to Marvell. “When I first got back down to Arkansas,” he said, “it was hard for me to adjust. It’s still hard to make money down here.”

But there was an upside: His return to Arkansas in the ’90s, like his move to Chicago in the ’60s, earned him musical freedom. With his marriage in the rearview, he could play blues again without having to field complaints at home. J.R. needed the comfort of his native culture, and Marvell needed him just as much. He said, “When I got back here, man, peoples was leaving town, everything going downhill, and I wanted to make a U-turn with that, ’cause this is home. I thought to myself, I’d feel good if I could bring some fun to town. Everything was quiet and dead, and on Sunday there wasn’t nothing to do.” (That comment says a little something about J.R.’s relationship with church.) “I started asking around, digging up some instruments, talking to peoples. I started thinking about the old country jook, and I was curious how it would work nowadays if somebody brought it back to life, so I did it, and so far things been kicking pretty good.”

Following Vernon Anderson’s example, J.R. began mentoring local musicians who had worked mainly in other genres. Just as in Chicago, rehearsals started turning into parties. J.R.’s first set of band members — drummer, bassist, and backing guitarist — left him. “They wanted to be in the spotlight,” J.R. said, “but I didn’t care who was in the spotlight. Peoples would ask me, say, ‘J.R., we having a cookout down here in our yard. We’d like to have y’all play.’ And they started calling us ‘J.R. and the Band.’ Well, I changed that to ‘J.R. and the Fellas.’ But the guys I was playing with, see, they wanted some kind of weird name. I done forgot whatever kind of crazy band name they was wanting, but we wasn’t that kind of band. We was a blues band, supposed to be. But they wanted to do Southern soul and then rap, and that wasn’t me.” J.R. played a few gigs at local clubs as a solo act. “I wanted to show [my former bandmates],” he said. “I did it before them and I could do it after them.” The next drummer and bassist he found, C-Murder and Juice, stuck with him.

Many times I’ve heard J.R. say, “I’m strictly bluesman.” He once told me, “I don’t play with all them sax and extra music in it. I don’t play them Temptations love songs either. I’m strictly bluesman.” His “strictly bluesman” identity was sometimes a source of tension between him and his fellow musicians, and between him and the folks who came to party at his place. Juice often caviled about J.R.’s strange, staticky guitar tone, telling him to “lose the fuzz.” This idiosyncratic distortion (which reminded me of the scratchy sound an elderly harp-player friend of mine achieved by jabbing holes in his Gorilla amp’s grill cloth with an ice pick) was part of J.R.’s rusticity. Perhaps it was meant to allude to the rattle and buzz of a medicine-bottle slide from the days before amplifiers. In any case, Juice preferred a warm, clean, urban tone. Also a Marvell native who had spent some time in Chicago, Juice once said to me, “To tell you the truth, Greg, this simple stuff we play ain’t even me. I’m just humoring these bumpkins.” He picked up an acoustic guitar and played a beautiful, arpeggiated rock progression in minor chords. “I made that up,” he said. “That’s what I’m about.”

Sometimes at J.R.’s, when the band was between songs, someone would grab a mic and start singing Southern soul, urging the musicians to follow along. J.R. occasionally showed his irritation toward these soul-singer types. Though he usually put a stop to their crooning, the ex-deejay met his friends halfway by pumping Southern soul favorites through his stereo system during breaks between sets. Once, during a break, someone grabbed a guitar and started playing “House of the Rising Sun.” Another day, an elderly man implored me to sing “Hound Dog.”

In a region still racially segregated in many respects, much more so than the scene J.R. had helped create up north, his house became a beautiful exception.

Aesthetic tensions notwithstanding, when the band kicked in, playing J.R.’s music J.R.’s way, the complaining ceased and the dancing commenced. Young people who came to J.R.’s parties got swept up into the blues. I once heard a conversation between J.R. and a teenage girl named Audrey, a native of Wisconsin and the daughter of J.R.’s then-fiancée, Pat. Audrey said she wanted to learn drums so she could play in J.R.’s band.

When the bluesmen left Marvell in the ’50s and ’60s, they took with them their rich musical and social traditions. Around the time J.R. reached “The City of Big Shoulders,” as tourists and purists began to fill blues venues, he and his friends had no need or incentive to switch from the music they knew. In a place where a bluesman could make good money playing for white fans, the Marvell contingent had a strong economic incentive not to stray from their wonted genre. Though J.R. never explicitly told me so, I imagine nostalgia was also a factor: blues must have felt like a dose of home. Most important, these were bluesmen. They wanted to play the blues. Whatever the precise combination of reasons might have been, J.R. played straight blues in Chicago for almost thirty-five years. Even as Southern soul gained ascendancy in Arkansas, his hometown’s blues sensibilities were preserved among him and his crew in Chicago.

Greg Brownderville, photo by Luke Duncan

In some respects what happened at J.R.’s jook house around the turn of the 21st-century was as natural as could be — the survival or revival of a tradition, depending on how you view it. In 1998 J.R. brought the blues home. By resurrecting the region’s old-time jook, he took a fading cultural memory and turned it into “Hey, y’all — party at my place Sunday.” There was nothing forced or contrived about the dancing, the storytelling, the laughing, the drinking, the gambling, or, for that matter, J.R. himself. Yet here we have a very complex case of authenticity. Imagine that J.R. had never left the Delta. Imagine his move to Chicago hadn’t coincided with the flowering of the Blues Revival, which encouraged him to play the blues, the old blues, and nothing but the blues for all those years. What if Vernon Anderson hadn’t taught J.R. guitar and made him part of a band? What if J.R. had never moved back home? None of the key events and circumstances was inevitable or even probable. If any of them had failed to materialize, that unforgettable jook house down a long dirt road near Marvell might never have existed.

And what a loss that would have been—for the Delta, at least. J.R. often said, “Blues bring folk together.” For him this wasn’t just some feel-good expression—it was experience talking. It was also everyday cultural work. J.R.’s authenticity is characterological, and far more interesting than the kind of time-capsule culture I initially thought his jook house represented. He helped me understand that the white audience for his music in Chicago had played an important role in his complicated history with the blues. He once predicted that if he ever recorded an album, most of his fans would be white. Yet when I met J.R., his audience in Marvell was exclusively black, and he took pride in having reignited a love of the blues among his old friends in the Delta. He also celebrated the chemistry, musical and personal, between us. Sometimes, at the end of the night when everyone else had left, he’d pour the two of us some homemade corn liquor out of a Bacardi bottle.

In 2007, I’ll never forget, he called my mother (whom he had never met) on Christmas morning just to wish her a happy holiday, sweetly calling her “doll” throughout the conversation. I took this gesture of kindness toward my mother as an expression of deepening friendship between J.R. and me. That same year, with J.R.’s encouragement, I started bringing to his parties a bunch of my Mississippi friends, mostly whites and Latinos. In a region still racially segregated in many respects, much more so than the scene J.R. had helped create up north, his house became a beautiful exception.

Willie Dixon, another Delta bluesman who made his way to Chicago, wrote a song called “Wang Dang Doodle” about the glory of blues parties. The last verse goes like this:

Tell Fats and Washboard Sam
That everybody gon’ jam.
Tell Shaky and Boxcar Joe
We got sawdust on the flo’.
Tell Peg and Aunt Caroline Dye,
We gonna have a time.
When the fish scent fills the air,
There’ll be snuff juice everywhere.
We gon’ pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.

Reading these lyrics, I go back to that first night — eating pulled pork with Pudding, then trailing her into the country with no idea what to expect. I remember J.R., how he greeted me with a grin and soon handed me an Arkansas-shaped guitar pick, like the key to a city or to a magical ignition. I remember maneuvering around blown harp reeds and gaps between porch planks as the whole crowd fell to dancing on the grass. And I remember the blues, the smoke-and-tang flavor of the music we made together. To use Dixon’s colorful terminology, J.R. Hamilton pitched some first-rate wang dang doodles there in Kingtown, Sand Hill, Turkey Scratch, or whatever it was called, if it was called anything. I believe I speak for all of J.R.’s jook-house friends when I say I’m mighty thankful he did. I’m mighty thankful he did.


This essay first appeared in the Southwest Review. Founded in 1915, it’s the third oldest, continuously published literary quarterly in the U.S. Our thanks to Greg Brownderville for letting us share it with the Longreads community.