History of American Juke-Joints

There are two words or terms that are closely related today, namely juke-joint (a small inexpensive café mainly in the southern States) and juke-box (an automatic coin-op phonograph). Which of the two terms did in fact come first? The term juke-joint did undoubtedly come first, because it was brought into the daily language in the South by the Afro-Americans decades before the first coin-op phonograph was demonstrated to the northern mainly Caucasian population in San Francisco in 1889 and after that in most of the big northern cities. The words juke and jook, which are both corruptions of the ancient Elisabethan jouk, were according to reliable sources brought to America by the not quite voluntarily immigrated coloured workers, that originated from the western part of Africa, and the word should mean 'to dance' or 'act wildly (disorderly)' in the evening after a long hard day's work in the (cotton) fields. The small cafés and public houses, which were reserved for blacks only in the southern States, were usually named jukes or juke-joints. The cafés were from the very beginning normally located next to the cotton fields and owned by the white first or second generation immigrated citizen and owner of the fields. In few cases, however, the café could also be leased to a long-time loyal old labourer, who could no longer work as hard as before.

The good local coloured musicians formed a basis for the classic blues in the joints, and met for decades no real competition from mechanical musical instruments like coin-op pianos and orchestrions, or from automatic phonographs (juke-boxes). The expensive and often heavy mechanical musical instruments with coin-chutes were found in the better public places like oyster-bars etc. in the big cities, whereas the smaller and somewhat cheaper coin-op phonographs were distributed to amusement- and music-arcades, coffee houses, bars and saloons. It is likely that the first 'used' coin-op phonograph was installed in one of the southern black community juke-joints only a few months or maybe a year after the Edison Class M with coin attachment had been demonstrated by the noted Louis Glass and partners in San Francisco. It was a quite natural development, and the often tired musicians in the coloured juke-bands were soon replaced by automatic coin-op music machines, which could even be a real money maker for the owner of the joint and the operator of the machine. The story of those coloured musicians can be read in detail in the wonderful book entitled "The Story of the Blues" by Paul Oliver, which was published first by Barrie & Rockliff (The Cresset Press) in 1969. Presumably the replacement of musicians did not arise before the coin-op phonographs were very reliable and had at least six or more selections to offer like for example the Hexaphone series produced by The Regina Music Box Company of Rahway, New Jersey. The first non-selective cylinder playing phonographs were probably only looked upon as curious features of the evening entertainment, except of course when they were used in the arcades in the big cities. After the coin-op phonographs had been installed in the jukes or joints, that often were built as poor annexes to grocery stores in the rural areas, the term juke-box was brought into and accepted in the local language. Since the two words juke-joint and juke-box were used together and became accepted terms in the southern, coloured language (especially in the Delta area), both words soon had a positive effect on each other's spreading to the rest of the US. There was for decades a continuous migration of coloured workers towards the industrial centers in the North, and the coloured workers of course brought the southern terms with them. The words juke-joint and juke-box were still for a long time considered to be 'black' terms, and they were not accepted by the white population or accepted in the official vocabulary or even used by the press until the late thirties or early forties.

There are, however, still old juke-joints in the poor, rural areas of the southern States, where the music is provided by real juke-boxes and not just by portable radios or stereos. A fantastic documentation of those jukes can be found in the pictures printed in the great book entitled "Juke Joint" by Birney Imes. The book was published in 1990 by the University Press of Mississippi. The juke-joints represent an American cultural heritage that ought not be forgotten, and it is the hope of the editor of this site that more people in the southern States will preserve the story of the juke-joints, including the knowledge about closed locations, and the life that took place in and around the small, inexpensive establishments for eating, drinking, and dancing to the music of a juke-box.

Gert J. Almind