Last Saturday Delta Moon played at one of the last authentic juke joints in the American South, Gip’s Place in Bessemer, Alabama.
According to Diane, who books the bands there, Henry “Gip” Gipson constructed the original building in his backyard in 1952. “He cleared a space so the neighborhood kids could play ball,” she said, “but they said they’d rather play music. So he built this place. Over the years he added all these rooms with his own hands. There used to be a second floor, but it burned. All that’s left now is a staircase going up from the deck outside.”
When we arrived, Gip (we also heard him called Henry, Mr. Henry and Mr. Gipson) sat onstage, wearing a blue silk New York Yankees jacket and a straw hat. He was singing and playing blues on a Gibson guitar. Even though there was nobody else in the room, he talked with us over the microphone, his voice drenched with reverb in the PA. It was as if we were visiting some kind of oracle.
Diane said, “After you’ve done your sound check, Gip will play guitar until it’s time to start. Then we will have a prayer, everyone will sing “Amazing Grace,” and we will introduce the band. On your break he’ll play his guitar again. At the end of the night I’ll be long gone, but Gip will play some more while you tear down your equipment. After you leave, Miss Bey will make sure he gets to bed.”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“As near as we can figure, he’s 94.”
Diane introduced me to Miss Bey, who sat behind a ticket window in a little building beside the driveway. Instead of stamping customers’ hands, she gave each person a necklace of plastic beads.
The place drew a mixed crowd, black and white, old and young, which is the way we like it. I met a visitor from Russia who spoke no English but absorbed everything with wide-eyed attention. During the first set Gip asked a young woman to dance with him, then convinced a young man to join her. Then he got another woman up, and so on. Soon the dance floor was full.
Over the microphone I thanked Gip for having us. He came to the stage and reached a hand up. He pulled me down and spoke in my ear.
He said, “We don’t use those words here.”
I said, “What words?”
“Thank you for having us.”
“What do we say?
“We say, ‘Thank the Lord for guiding us here.'”
On our break Gip resumed his seat, playing his guitar, singing and talking with the audience, and taking occasional sips of liquor from a plastic cup. The riffs got slower and slower and finally stopped completely. We looked over and couldn’t see Gip’s face, just the top of his straw hat.
Two men gently lifted Gip to his feet and led him from the room. We started our second set. Just as the action on the dance floor reached its peak, here came Gip again, one hand up in the air and a big smile on his face.
Somebody said, “Mr. Henry had his nap.”
Later, after the customers were gone, Gip sat in his chair as we packed up, playing whatever came to his head or fingers. I recognized a piece of “Scratch My Back” and a verse of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby”. When all our gear was in the van, we gathered round to say goodnight. Gip felt like talking. He told us about Jesus and David and the Golden Rule. He told us about the time Reverend C. L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, came to meet him. The minister did not come into the juke joint but waited in the driveway for Gip to come out. “Sometimes people come to you. Sometimes you got to go to them.”
Gip sang a little of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.
“One day soon I’m going to be 100 years old,” he said. “You reap what you sow, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of reaping. I sit here and look around me. I look at this room. And I like what I see.”
We left him alone on the stage, as we had found him. Pulling out of the driveway, we could hear his electric guitar behind us. A light was on behind the curtained window in the little building where Miss Bey waited to lead Mr. Gipson to bed.