Po’ Monkey’s Lounge

Po’ Monkey’s Lounge

I went in search of a story, but what I found was so much more. I found a home, I found friendships, and I found the most unexpected mentor. Willie Seaberry, known to most as Po’ Monkey, was one of my greatest teachers.

 

For the last eight or so years, I spent many Thursday nights at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, a juke joint outside of Merigold, Mississippi. In the last twenty years, this iconic location became the biggest marketing piece used by the state in its quest to promote - and economize - the rich musical heritage of the region. Lauded as “the last of the rural juke joints,” Po’ Monkey’s somehow managed to keep a loyal local following while increasingly attracting tourists from around the world. Blues purists bemoaned that the marketing push undermined the juke’s authenticity, but the core crowd that had been coming since the 1960s was still very much around in 2016. I went in search of a story, but what I found was so much more. I found a home, I found friendships, and I found the most unexpected mentor. Willie Seaberry, known to most as Po’ Monkey, was one of my greatest teachers.

When I first visited Willie’s juke joint I was intrigued by its myth. I’d heard stories, and even visited once or twice in the early 90s while in college. On those early trips I wasn’t seeking to understand anything. I just wanted a beer or two. I was young, stupid, and clueless as to the significance of the place and the man that ran it. By the time I returned, years later, I mostly wanted to understand why the rest of the world had added a visit to their bucket list.

What I found was a deeper connection to my home. I reconnected with classmates from high school, most of whom I’d lost touch with despite the fact that as adults we lived only a few minutes away from one another. I realized that without the formal structure of school to bring us together, we’d allowed life to retreat us into smaller and smaller worlds. Willie Seaberry provided a new structure for our reunions, and just as I forged a bond with the classmates of my youth, so, too, did I form deep connections to those who visited the Lounge regularly.

About twenty years ago Willie’s friend Larry Grimes began bringing stuffed monkeys and securing them to the ceiling. It didn’t take long for the decoration to catch on, and as more and more tourists visited the space, it was not uncommon for Willie to receive several toy monkeys as gifts every week from well-wishers.

Those are the bonds that made Po’ Monkey’s special. We came because we enjoyed each other. We came to laugh and celebrate and dance and sing together. We drank together. We ate together. On July 14, 2016 we cried together. Now we are all seeking that joyous space that closed the night Willie left us.

A corner booth is adorned with photos of tractors and other farm equipment, a nod to Willie’s day job on the Hiter family farm.
 

The place was regularly filled with tourists and first-timers, but it was always anchored by a family with Willie Seaberry as our patriarch.

 

Willie Seaberry stands outside the door of the back room to his juke. The club has been closed since his passing in July of 2016.

In the month since Mr. Seaberry’s passing I’ve realized what it all meant, and why we were so lucky. On the Thursday following his death a celebration was held at Sky Box in Shelby. When I entered the club, the space was certainly different, but the people were the same. The following week we moved to Annie Bell’s in Clarksdale, and the week after that we gathered at The Old Time Blues Place in Marks. We talked about Mr. Seaberry. We toasted his life, and we were grateful for him bringing us all together as a family.

This was the magic of Po’ Monkey’s Lounge and why so many wanted to visit - because of the family. The place was regularly filled with tourists and first-timers, but it was always anchored by a family with Willie Seaberry as our patriarch. It wasn’t the same if that family wasn’t there. We loved him, and we loved each other, and when a room is filled with that much unconditional love, how could you not want to be a part of it?

 

  • image
    The entrance to Po’ Monkey’s is nondescript and belies the colorful world just beyond.
  • image
    The pool table sits in a room on the eastern wall of the juke. The room was added to the original structure years ago, and savvy players learned to adapt to the extreme lean caused by the non-level floor.
  • image
    In 2013 Senator Willie Simmons fashioned a cooking trailer outside. The menu was a sampling of what is available from his Cleveland restaurant.
  • image
    The walls are adorned with the gifts, photos, notes, and posters from the many visitors from around the world.
  • image
    Originally, the sharecroppers shack had no running water, and thus no indoor bathroom. When the east addition was made, two bathrooms were added. Pictured here is the ladies’ room.
  • image
    The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, directed by Dr. Luther Brown with the help of Dr. Henry Outlaw, recognized the importance of Willie Seaberry and in 2003 formally recognized him for his contributions to culture and tourism in Mississippi.
  • image
    The entrance to the restrooms feature the largest toy monkeys in the building.
  • image
    The electrical wiring at Po’ Monkey’s was haphazard at best, but miraculously, the only trouble that ever came from it was a blown fuse once or twice a summer when the air conditioning was forced to work its hardest.
  • image
    Several televisions line the walls. One works. The others - not so much.

 

 

Photographer Will Jacks and Willie Seaberry together at Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

Return to top

Resources

Links

Find Po' Monkey's Lounge on The Mississippi Blues Trail .

Follow more of the work and photography of Will Jacks at http://whjacks.com.

Driving the Juke Joint Trail by Alex Crevar at The New York Times

Return to top


Will Jacks

Will Jacks

Mississippi native Will Jacks is a photographer, curator, storyteller, and educator of culture and relationships in the Mississippi Delta and the lower Mississippi River region. He began documenting Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in 2007. In 2018, University Press of Mississippi will publish a monograph of his work.