If you had told me a year ago that I would be living in Alabama and visiting juke joints in the middle of nowhere, I never would have believed you. Even though I’m from the South, I was going to live in New York City, didn’t you know? I was going to go to the clubs and trendy restaurants, and wear an LBD and heels all the time. Yet here I am in good ol’ Alabama, eating some of the best Southern food in my life, wearing jean shirts and dancing to blues music. And guess what, I’m absolutely loving it.
How I came to end up here instead of NYC and why I love it so much is a whole blog post of its own, but today I want to discuss what I did Saturday night – an experience I would have never had in NYC. I went to my first juke joint: Gip’s Place. Gip’s is an establishment for Alabama folk, located in Bessemer, AL, about 18 miles from Birmingham. I have to say, this was like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life. Below is my “memoir” of Gip’s Place.
After speeding along back country roads and driving for what feels like an eternity into the middle of nowhere, you turn into an old run-down neighborhood. The neighborhood is dark and quiet, but you know you’re in the right place because cars line the streets and you have to park four streets away from what you believe to be your destination: Gip’s Place – a real-deal, authentic juke joint. You grab your cooler packed with an assortment of local beers (Gip’s is BYOB) and head up the quiet street. But suddenly it’s not so quiet anymore. The faint sound of blues music is drifting towards you on the cool night wind, swirling into your ears with the promise of a toe-tapping, hand-clapping good time.
When you reach the top of a hill, you see it. A shack with a curtain of twinkling Christmas lights immediately catches your attention, but then you look around and notice you are surrounded by what looks like a collection of mini fair tents and shacks, all strung with lights. Someone taps you on the shoulder, drawing you out of your Christmas-light trance. “That will be $10.” You have to pay to go to Gip’s, but rumor has it that Mr. Gip is using the money to pay his neighbors to not complain.
Slipping back into a trance, but this time drawn by the music, you make your way to the light curtained shack. You are greeted by swing-dancing bodies, a live blues band and walls plastered with photos of blues legends, neon signs and other memorabilia, including a bumper sticker saying, “If you don’t love Jesus, go to Hell!”
You’re now part of the crowd, clapping your hands, dancing and enjoying the soul-cleansing sound of true blues music. No one makes you feel like a stranger at Gip’s Place, whether it’s your first time or your 50th. The lead singer of the band, wearing a shimmery metallic shirt and sunglasses, rocks out under a sign saying “Gip’s Place – Home of the Blues.” And you immediately know this is true. This is how blues was born – in tight-knit communities in the deep South, coming together over a shared love of music.
Suddenly the band stops. A man with a black, wide-brimmed cowboy hat on his head, mardi gras beads around his neck and years of stories on his face takes the stage. That’s Mr. Gip, someone whispers. Mr. Gip, who is said to be in his late 80s, maybe older, quietly sits down, picks up a guitar and begins to play. He somehow manages to drink a Bud Light while playing and everyone gives him the respect he deserves for establishing this place – a place where true Southerners can come together to celebrate the foundation of a culture and the identity of a region.
You get back in your car at the end of the night and you drive back along those dark, country roads. But they don’t seem so dark and long anymore. They feel like a passage; a guide to take you back to your roots.