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