In the early 1960s, Willie Seaberry and his then-wife Eula Mae opened Po’ Monkey’s juke joint at the end of a gravel road past fields of corn, cotton, and soybeans in Merigold, Mississippi. Every Thursday night for decades, neighbors, friends, college students, and tourists traveling the Mississippi Blues Trail congregated beneath its low-slung ceiling bedecked with stuffed monkeys and colorful Christmas lights to dance, socialize, and drink 40-ounce beers. After Seaberry’s death in 2016, however, Po’ Monkey’s went silent, and its contents were put up for auction last year. But thanks to the work of Will Jacks, a photographer from nearby Cleveland, the memory of the legendary juke joint lives on.
Jacks’s new book, Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint began as an assignment for Delta Magazine in 2007. “I spent nine months working on it, but when I finished, I felt like I barely even scratched the surface,” Jacks says. “I didn’t fully understand what I had just documented.” So, he spent the next decade learning, shooting and befriending Po’ Monkey’s regulars.
“The place had a lot of visual drama, and you’d be overwhelmed by that the first time you came,” Jacks says. “Then after a second or third time, it became more about the interaction of people.” That’s why Jacks chose black and white for his photographs, to minimize the colorful atmosphere and emphasize the human connections formed in the ramshackle building. He captured the excitement inside, but often erected a white backdrop outside the front door to snap shots of patrons who came from down the road and—as Po’ Monkey’s gained notoriety on the Blues Trail and Seaberry became something of a local celebrity—from as far away as Indiana and Italy.
“It was the glue of locals that made this place special,” Jacks says. “They were as welcoming as Willie was. It’s special that visitors from around the world could interact with people who live down the street.” That’s the sentiment he wants generations to remember as the building sits empty and the fate of Seaberry’s estate remains in question—the contents were sold as a collection, but no plan has yet been made about what to do with them. “We can’t try to hang on to Willie and what he built because it will become diluted,” Jacks says, “but I hope this book brings attention to the magic he created.”