ARSC review

Bars, Blues and Booze: Stories from the Drink House. By Emily D. Edwards. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 312 pp (hardcover). Notes, Bibliography, Filmography, and Index. ISBN: 9781496806390

As an avid lover of the blues myself, I have traveled to the Deep South many times in search of a blues history that is getting more difficult to find. The blues tradition has not maintained a strong presence within the younger generations, despite the efforts of blues organizations and tourist attractions. Any interested blues lover can travel down the recently designated blues highway, but can they really get a feel for the music and culture that existed in the drink houses? I have visited a few juke joints, but I reckon my experience in the modern day is nothing like what is described within this book.

Drink houses, juke joints, and party houses were an important element in the development of blues music, Racial discrimination, liquor laws, and economic inequality in the Deep South spawned a scene that was necessary for survival in the black community. Drinking and dancing to the music created by hard times and rural life formed a community, and these communities spread throughout the South. They brought opportunity for the locals to bring in some extra cash by selling large quantities of illegal booze; local blues musicians would play for a few drinks and for the joy of playing. White musicians playing the legal clubs would drop by to jam after hours. The disenfranchised came out to dance, drink, and have a good time, Imbibing in alcohol and drugs often made performing difficult, due to both the rowdy audience and the inebriation of the musicians. Would you avoid a drink house categorized as a “bucket of blood” or embrace the unknown and the effects of too much alcohol?

I enjoyed reading this collection of personal narratives that make up the majority of this book, with most of the narratives coming from the Piedmont area of North Carolina. For those unfamiliar with what a drink house is, the author begins the book with a series of narratives that describe the different types of drink houses that operated throughout the South. The narratives are honest, but perhaps not always factual since names and dates are often forgotten. These are true stories from the drink house. There are tales of drinking and brawling, and bawdy nights turning into morning. Musicians seeking out other musicians looking for a place to kick back and have a good time allowed for black and white cultures to intermingle. Tales of Prohibition and midnight runs across state lines to obtain more booze (to keep the party going) allow the reader to get a glimpse into scenes most of us have not experienced. The author presents an oral history of both the social and musical events that developed around these drink houses and shows how in many ways they were dependent upon each other for survival.

As the elder blues musicians died and the audience diminished, so did the drink houses that supported them. This book,  part of the American Made Music Series, focuses on the behind-the-scenes narratives of musicians playing juke joints, drink houses, and wherever else people could gather, listen to live music. drink some booze, and dance. The author, Emily D. Edwards, is a professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and she does a good job of relaying the connections between blues music and American history. Her interpretations of how Prohibition and the rise of drink houses allowed for an intersection of black and white musical cultures in the South is a refreshing perspective.

Moving through the twelve chapters, each having a different emphasis, the narratives engage the reader with memories of the music scene in Muscle Shoals and the Piedmont area of North Carolina. One learns what it was like being a white kid on the chitlin’ circuit and how closely linked juke joints were to moonshine and Prohibition. There are tales of how music merged with magic, and of feeding the musicians, as well as road stories about odd venues. As a plus, these narratives offer plenty of primary source material. Once I started reading the narratives, I found the book difficult to put down, as I found the behind-the-scenes stories amusing, engaging, and enlightening. The author exhibits a true love for the subject matter; and I am not aware of any other book-length publication that covers the connection between the musical community and the drink houses of the American South. Gathering these narratives is an important task, as the musicians who now are able to live and tell about their experiences are also aging.

Those who have an interest in the raunchier side of the blues will enjoy this book, and if you are a musician, I believe you will appreciate their stories. It is written in a casual manner, transcribed in the natural language of the narrators. There is a lengthy Notes section, which clocks in at twenty-three pages, for those curious about diving deeper into the historical research.

-Reviewed by Laura Moody