Editor’s Note: Guest Editor Panama Jackson has hand-selected a group of acclaimed writers to curate this special series of personal narratives celebrating Black music, in preparation for the National Museum of African American Music’s January 2021 opening.
I remember when I first met God.
It happened in the wee hours of the Sabbath in an unsacred sanctuary that some refer to as a “hole in the wall.” Even if you’ve never patronized this particular franchise, perhaps you’ve been to a similar house of worship called a “juke joint.”
Every town and municipality in America has at least one square mile where it historically caged its Black population. No matter where they’re located, these segregated slices of Americana all contain the same assortment of historic landmarks. There is always a store that sells candy, cigarettes, candy cigarettes, bitter ale in outsized containers large enough to provide a sufficient level of intoxication before the drinker reaches the lukewarm backwash at the bottom, and shelves stocked with a variety of poisons barely fit for human consumption. You will invariably find a liquor store with overpriced liquor next to a barbershop with a hand-painted sign obscured by the gentleman smoking a Newport in the soft-pack washing the smoke down with a carbonated beverage just purchased from the candy store that is down the street from the rec center near the corner where “Darrell got shot.” (The spot where Darrell got shot is a historic neighborhood landmark in every Black neighborhood. Darrell gets shot a lot.)
And then there are the churches.
Some of them are big Baptist buildings with cathedral ceilings, stained glass, and steeples high enough to tower over the hopes of Black folks. They’re never as tall as our dreams and just short enough to escape the sight of God—even when he squints. Some of the churches are storefronts with scriptures hand-painted by the same man whose script decorates the window of the barbershop. Some are square boxes built with building funds and faithful tithers. Some, like Gip’s Place, are not churches, but they are still houses of worship.
Gip’s Place is but a short walk from the Bessemer, AL holding cell where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was once inspired to write his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In 1952, long before Darrell met his tragic fate, Henry Gipson began inviting musicians traveling through Alabama to his backyard barbecues. As a longtime railroad man—and a part-time blues musician, Gip made friends throughout the Southern blues circuit and used his connections to lure blues legends from Keith Richards to B.B. King to the converted garage that holds 50 people on a good day.
Since then, Gip’s Place was a place of holy convocation that God visited more often than any chapel or synagogue. It would be more than 45 years before anyone could remember a white face in this sanctuary. But every weekend and holiday evening, Black faces crowded under the string lights, faced the makeshift platform stage and listened to America’s original griots hand-whip the crowd into a frenzy. Amidst all the swishing hips, praise dancing and hallelujahs, the parishioners came in spiritual union and swayed to this country’s original joyful noise.
I came into this house of the Lord on a Saturday night in October 1993.
The first thing I remember is the tiny man in a leather cowboy hat, sitting on the corner of the makeshift stage, legs dangling off the edge, eyes closed, making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Every few minutes (or perhaps it was every few seconds—time had slowed down to a crawl) the leather-hatted man would be overcome by the ancestors’ holiest of ghosts and strike his tambourine in exultant praise.
He was playing a tambourine.
The raindrops seemed to tap dance against the tin roof as if they were accompanying the band. My grandmother has never been there, but she was present—as were all of the ancestors. The guitar wailed through the speakers like a barefooted woman in a flowered dress twirling to Muddy Waters while waiting for her biscuits to come out of the oven. As I sipped from a plastic cup filled with the communion beverage known as “brown liquor,” I noticed that everyone was in the choir. The pocket-knife carrying uncles and the purse-toting aunties in miniskirts; the Stacy Adams-sporting debonair and the sneaker-wearing sports; the saints and the sinners—they were all indistinguishable. It was one congregation rejoicing on this day that He had made and being glad in it. It was one people...
Every form of American music—jazz, rock & roll, hip hop and even country music—is an evolutionary offshoot of the blues, of the classical refrain we made up with our mouths and hands, crafted in cotton fields, seasoned with the salt from our tears and sweetened with the syrup of our un-silenced song. Contrary to popular belief, the blues has nothing to do with angst or sadness. It is about the unvanquished spirit of hope and faith that remains. It is less about the “pretty little thang” that burned you than it is about having once bathed in a heartfire of love. It is not about the river that swallows us whole, it is about the miracle of not drowning in it. It is the substance that sweats out of our pores and dribbles from our mouths as a southern drawl or a colloquial greeting.
“Nobody loves me but my mother. And she could be jiving me, too.”
“I’m gonna make it to heaven ‘fo the devil finds my address.”
“If I don’t love you, then grits ain’t grocery, eggs ain’t poultry and Mona Lisa was a man.”
That is the blues.
It is the abducted African rhythm once bound on a Louisiana plantation before it escaped to a Mississippi Delta and swished its hip in a smoky Beale Street bar before boarding a train to Chicago. The blues is the mining of that speck of joy in the sea of sorrow. It is the triumph in our survival. Blues takes hands bruised from cotton-picking and brings them together in involuntary, rhythmic applause. Blues is a Negro spiritual. And a protest song. And a ballad. And a lullaby. It is omnipotent and everlasting. It is. It was. It will always be.
God lives in a juke joint.
If you’ve ever been in the congregation of Gip’s Place, then you know it is a tabernacle. I have seen souls lifted as they danced a holy dance on the shouting floor. In 2013, after advertising the place as a tourist destination for years, the city of Bessemer tried to shut Gip’s Place down for operating without a license, but a national outcry forced the city to reverse its decision. In 2019, Henry Gipson died and America’s last true juke joint closed forever.
But not really.
Whenever two or three of us are gathered in Blues’ name, the music becomes a sermon and the building becomes a house of worship. Gospel is not limited to churches, mosques or synagogues, and the blues does not exist on records, radio stations or streaming algorithms. It cannot be bound by city ordinances, tin roofs or man-made dictates. Perhaps this is why we are known for holes in the wall—because we cannot be contained. The Blues is the unkillable, unstealable essence of Black souls. It is our gospel and our prayer. It is the power and the glory forever and ever.
Michael Harriot is a senior writer for The Root and a cultural and social commentator, poet, and novelist.