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What Is a Juke Joint?

One legend states that blues musician Robert Johnson died after drinking strychnine-laced whiskey in a juke joint.
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  • Written By: Christina Edwards
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2014
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A juke joint is an informal business, similar to a tavern or bar, traditionally patronized by African Americans. It is believed that the earliest juke joints originated from slave buildings meant for socialization. Alcohol and music could almost always be found in juke joints, and they were especially popular during prohibition. These establishments were once very common in the southern United States, but most of them have since been replaced or modernized.

The word juke most likely originated from the Creole word joog, which roughly translates to disorderly or wicked. The first juke joints were most likely simple shacks constructed on plantations in the southern United States. Slaves would gather and socialize in these shacks after working all day. It provided a place to unwind and relax.

After slavery in the United States ended, the Jim Crow laws codified racial segregation. Since a black man was banned from entering a white establishment, he would visit a juke joint instead.

Many juke joint patrons enjoyed alcoholic beverages. During prohibition in the 1920s and the early 1930s, these establishments were quite popular, but they were typically kept a secret. Anyone caught serving or selling alcohol during this time usually faced a stiff penalty.

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Music was also very popular in most juke joints. In fact, the modern juke box is believed to have gotten its name from these establishments. Folk and blues musicians often traveled from juke joint to juke joint. They were typically compensated with tips, food, and alcohol.

A few influential blues musicians regularly frequented juke joints. Charlie Patton, who is sometimes considered the father of Delta Blues, is one example. Robert Johnson, another blues musician popular during the 1930s, also frequented these types of establishments quite often. In fact, it is rumored that he was poisoned in a juke joint. The legend states that he drank strychnine-laced whiskey and died a few days later.

Very few traditional juke joints still exist in the United States. Many of these establishments were closed because they were unsanitary or eyesores. A few, however, still remain. Two juke joints are still operational in Mississippi, for instance. They are both part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Most traditional juke joints have been replaced by more modern businesses. The famous House of Blues®, for instance, is something of a modern day juke joint. A number of well known celebrities, along with a prestigious university, all worked together to open the first House of Blues® in Massachusetts in the early 1990s. Although this original location has since closed, today there are several House of Blues® concert halls across the country.

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