Origin of the Term Jukebox

Collectors and amateur historians have often been asked, why the object of their hobby is called a jukebox. In other words; where did the word jukebox come from? There have of course over the years been several suggestions as to the origin of the term, but no one really knows for a fact where the strange word jukebox came from in the first place.

The most reasonable explanation is, in my opinion, that the descendents of the Africans, who had been transported as slaves to the Caribbean area and the southern and eastern part of America to work the plantations, still had the old English word jouk in their vocabulary. Part of the language they brought with them is still known today as the Gullah language, a Creole blend of Elisabethan English and African languages, used around the plantations of the costal South. However, the word the Africans knew in the first place was often spelt jook, a corrupted form used in the western, colonized part of  the African continent, where the serving blacks had accepted the word as a cultured term for dancing or acting wildly (disorderly). The word jouk could, as mentioned in the British newspaper "Guardian" dated 18th March, 1974, be found as early as in the Elisabethan English. The reign of Queen Elisabeth I (1558-1603) was notable for commercial growth and especially the flourishing of literature, music, and architecture. It is obvious, that the small tea houses or joints for blacks only in the Deep South would be called juke-joints, if juke was another corruption of the Elisabethan word jouk for dancing or acting disorderly. It is even stated as a fact in "The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary" printed in 1933 that the word juke was obsolete for jouk. I have until now only once heard of the odd spelling jute in old writing, and I am sure it was only a matter of bad spelling and had nothing to do with jute fibre or jute mills in the South. In the book "The Story of the Blues" by Paul Oliver, published 1969, the following sentence can be found on page 21: "...Saturday night was for good times, with the liquor flowing, the shouts and laughter of dancers rising above the noice of a juke band or gin-mill piano, and sometimes the staccato report of a revolver fired in jest - or in earnest...". In this case juke band surely means dance band. Another word connected to music and dance, which the people of the Deep South had taken from Elisabethan English, was jazz, a corruption of the word jass that had survived in the vernacular of the houses, where usually only members of the male population came. This is mentioned in the book "The Jazz Record Book" by Charles Edward Smith et al., published 1942.

If the above is correct, which the editor believes it is, and the juke bands in order to lower the overall costs were replaced by nickel-in-the-slot machines, alias automatic phonographs, it is obvious that the coin-operated machines in the juke-joints would be called juke-boxes. Again, in the book "The Story of the Blues" by Paul Oliver the following sentence can be found on page 140: "...A hand-wound phonograph could now provide music for dancing more cheaply, and often with greater variety than could a single singer, a duo or even a string band. In the late thirties the inroads made in group entertainment by the record industry were bolstered by the introduction of the mechanical players, which could handle as many as fifty records at a time. They were set up in the country districts at every crossing café, and in every joint and juke. The latter gave them their name - juke-boxes began to replace live musicians everywhere; florid, chromium plated and enamelled in genuine pop art fashion, they were installed at roadside booths, even on breakfast counters...". That sentence tells more clearly than anything the origin of the word juke-box. The definition of the term 'juke joint' (n) was, when it was still young in the official vocabulary: "a small, inexpensive establishment for eating, drinking, or dancing to the music of a jukebox" (1937).

The term juke-box used mainly in the Delta area, was of course not accepted in the 'white' areas of the United States, where the colloquial term automatic phonograph was used until the late thirties. The famous band leader Glenn Miller was, if the editor is not mistaken, the first to use the word juke-box publicly in an interview with "Time Magazine" in the late thirties (1939). Glenn Miller's use of the term might well have inspired Albert Stillman to write the lyrics for 'Juke Box Saturday Night' with music by Paul McGrane (from "Stars On Ice", and recorded in 1942). Since then a lot of music recordings have been made with the term jukebox in the title. According to the book "The Jukebox Bluebook" by Ben C. Humphries (1st ed., 1990) the word jukebox was used as slang among patrons, operators, and members of the industry in the thirties, but the word was not actually used in advertising until AMI used the term to introduce the model A, nicknamed Mother of Plastic, in the spring of 1946. The latest reliable information comes from Ken Dowell, who searched "newspapers.com" in 2020, and the first mention he found of a "juke box" was in a gossipy column called the Town Crier in the Akron Beacon Journal of December 14, 1939. The author, Anthony Weitzel, reported that "…Bernard and Viola Berk plotting New Year's eve at their winter place in Eustis, Florida, where the hottest dive in town is a hamburger palace equipped with a 'juke-box'. A 'juke-box ' in case you haven't been south, is a nickel music-box…the kind the syndicates are squabbling over". Also Ken Dowell found that a September 22, 1940, article in the Baltimore Sun clarified: "…You may not know that powerful instrument, the juke-box, by its trade name, but you have surely seen it in the corner of the local drugstore, the roadside hamburger bar, or any of the eat-drink-and-dance places which can't afford homemade music…".

It is quite interesting to note today, that there was a discussion in the American magazine "Billboard" in the period 1941-43, whether all manufacturers should use a common term, namely Coinograph, for the automatic music machines. However, the new term was never accepted by the trade, and one reason might have been that it had been used as a model name forty years earlier by the slot-machine company Geo. F. Krieger & Co. in Chicago, and in addition the name had been used as the title of a newsletter published by RCA Victor. Also it is interesting to note, that only the term phonograph was used in the film "Gang War" made 1940 on location in Harlem, New York. The film describes the rivalry between two operators who want to control the local market. Today that one is considered a 'black' cult film in the States together with many others of the forties including the film entitled "Juke Joint" made 1947 with music by Red Calhoun.

In the fifties and early sixties the manufacturers on the Danish market used various terms for the coin-operated phonographs: musikautomat, music-box, grammofon-automat, juke-box, and automat-grammofon. In fact only one Danish manufacturer, Bøgh & Egholm, used the name juke-box on the cabinet. Thus, the editor can only say that we have many names for the things we love.

Gert J. Almind