Q&A with photographer Will Jacks - documented the lively nightlife of Po’ Monkey’s, one the most famous juke joint

"Great art always reflects the sociopolitical happenings of its time. You can recognize the value of a culture based on the art being created."

Will Jacks: The Images of Mississippi

Will Jacks is a photographer, curator, storyteller, and educator of culture and relationships in the Mississippi Delta, the Lower Mississippi River region, and the American South. He teaches photography and documentary courses in the Mississippi Delta. After completing graduate studies in journalism at the University of Mississippi in 1996, Will Jacks opened a photography studio in his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi, where he still lives. As his work and career developed, Jacks expanded his studio into a regional photography gallery, the Wiljax Gallery for Southern Photography. In 2013 he organized the exhibition Eudora Welty: 27 Portraits, which garnered recognition by Time magazine. Jacks has taught at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and currently teaches at Delta State University in Cleveland. He is currently working on a monograph of his photographs, focusing on the local communities of the Mississippi Delta, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2019.

Photo: Will Jacks & Willie Seaberry, Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, MS

For many years Jacks documented the lively nightlife of Po’ Monkey’s, a juke joint located in a small house amid cotton fields in unincorporated Bolivar County. Po’ Monkey’s, perhaps the most famous house in Mississippi and the last rural juke joint in the state, now closed to the public. In "Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint" (University Press of Mississippi, 2019), photographer Will Jacks captures the juke joint he spent a decade patronizing. The more than seventy black-and-white photographs featured in this volume reflect ten years of weekly visits to the lounge as a regular—a journal of Jacks’s encounters with other customers, tourists, and Willie Seaberry himself. An essay by award-winning writer Boyce Upholt on the cultural significance of the lounge accompanies the images. This volume explores the difficulties of preservation, historical context, community relations, and cultural tourism. Now that Seaberry is gone, the uncertainty of the future of his juke joint highlights the need for a historical record.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Photos © by Will Jacks/All Rights Reserved

How has the Southern Heritage influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

There is a strong sense of family here in the South. I don’t think we’re unique in that way, of course, but traveling to other places often helps give a better perspective of our homes. In Spain, for example, I found many similar qualities to our lives here in the Delta - a joy for life and community. A desire to live to the fullest. A strong sense of community.

What were the reasons that you started the photo art researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

I discovered photography when I was around 25. I was in journalism graduate school. I’d always been drawn to art and artists but hadn’t found a medium that worked for me. I’d tried painting - I was not very good. I tried ceramics as was even worse. I could always draw a little, but over time and without practice that faded. When I picked up a camera, though, it made sense. Almost immediately I understood the tool. Then I discovered that a camera could help me gain access to worlds I’d otherwise never knew existed. I could visit beneath the surface of things, and I fell in love with that the most.

"The blues to me are simply a reminder of home. I am not a musician nor am I a blues scholar, but I did grow up in the Mississippi Delta so hearing blues music is comforting in the sense that it reminds me of my home and all the complexities that come with it." ("Po’ Monkey’s: Portrait of a Juke Joint", 2019)

What touched (emotionally) you from Po' Monkey's? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

The regulars that went week after week and had been doing so for years were the thing, I was most drawn to. I loved that Po’ Monkey’s could be such a popular place with the tourist while also being a gathering spot for a loyal group of locals. As for stories, man, so many to tell. It’s hard to narrow down just one.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music is very important to me. My mom is a musician. She plays piano and the organ and was also pretty good on the harpischord. My father sang in the church choir. Both of my sisters also play a little piano. I never learned to play an instrument and I regret that. Hopefully before I’m gone I’ll learn to at least strum guitar.

But I feel music deeply. All music, not just blues. If it’s good, then it’s good. When I’m in the darkroom I usually listen to jazz, for example. But I definitely make music a huge part of my life. Perhaps in a previous lifetime I was a musician, because I do feel a strong connection to it.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t miss much from music of the past. Certainly, I think back fondly on memories that are often triggered by music, but I’m also ok with music moving in whatever directions it needs to move. Nothing stays the same forever. My hopes for the future are simply that we encourage and foster creativity of all types and allow it to grow and move in whatever directions it needs to move. If that means more blues music, then that’s great. If it means the creation of something else, that’s great too.

Why do you think that the Southern Music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it is born from a place of authenticity. The music was originally created because it needed to be created - it was an emotional release. And that’s a powerfully attractive place for any making to originate.

"But I feel music deeply. All music, not just blues. If it’s good, then it’s good. When I’m in the darkroom I usually listen to jazz, for example. But I definitely make music a huge part of my life. Perhaps in a previous lifetime I was a musician, because I do feel a strong connection to it." (Will Jacks / Photo by Chandler Hubbard)

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

The blues to me are simply a reminder of home. I am not a musician nor am I a blues scholar, but I did grow up in the Mississippi Delta so hearing blues music is comforting in the sense that it reminds me of my home and all the complexities that come with it.

What are some of the most important (life) lessons you have learned from shooting the people of Mississippi?

Things are always more complex than we realize and the most important thing is to know that our way is not the only way.

What is the impact of music and photo art to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Great art always reflects the sociopolitical happenings of its time. You can recognize the value of a culture based on the art being created.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’m really happy with where I am. I love to travel, and do so frequently, but if I had to be only one place it would be on my farm surrounded by the many artists and musicians that also live there and visit.

Will H. Jacks - Home

PHOTO: FROM PO’ MONKEY’S: PORTRAIT OF A JUKE JOINT BY WILL JACKS PUBLISHED BY UNIVERSITY PRESS OF MISSISSIPPI, COPYRIGHT © 2019 BY WILL JACKS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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