This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
When “Business” Spells the Blues for a Popular Juke Joint: A Case of Cultural and Community Perseverance by Mary Allison Haynie
In 2013, Gip’s Place, a neighborhood juke joint owned by Mr. Henry “Gip” Gipson and located in Bessemer, Alabama, gained too much “business.” Circumstances surrounding the growth of this international attraction came to the attention of the City of Bessemer, prompting them to redefine what had existed as a “backyard party” for over 60 years as a business. Was Gip’s Place now responsible to city codes, zoning ordinances, and all legal requirements applied to income-producing establishments? After overwhelming support for Mr. Gipson discussions, and changes, a resolution was reached.
Today, Gip’s Place still operates in its original location, bringing people together to enjoy music and good times. The cultural landmark is doing what it does best, facilitating the tradition and business of the blues without being a “business.”
In 1952 Mr. Gipson opened his backyard to gatherings featuring music and food, all free and open to guests and musicians of all backgrounds. Over the decades, Gip’s Place grew, becoming a symbol of the traditional juke joint and highly recognized as one of the few remaining in Alabama. Gip’s has been featured in a show on National Public Radio, written up in American Blues Scene Magazine, and presented in documentaries including an episode of Journey Proud produced by Alabama Public Television and a special show hosted by Wynton Marsalis for CBS News This Morning.
The City developed issues with additions to the Saturday night gatherings such as wrist bands, t-shirt and CD sales, food services, door fees, and complaints by neighbors about late night noise, parking challenges, and patrons relieving themselves in private yards. According to the City, the juke joint was a “business,” but located in an area zoned residential and operated with no licenses out of a facility composed of adjoining structures that did not meet codes applied to other enterprises.
Between musical performances on Saturday, May 4, 2013, the Bessemer Police Department enforced the closing of Gip’s Place, setting forth a wave of responses by the community, musicians, patrons, and friends of Mr. “Gip”. In the age of social media, news concerning the shutdown of Gip’s Place spread rapidly, reaching a multitude of supporters including leaders of organizations dedicated to the heritage of the blues in Alabama. An avalanche of phone calls, emails, letters, and presence at the next City Hall meeting led to negotiations.
The support of guests, in-kind services, and negotiations allowed the location and gatherings to overcome these new challenges. Gip’s place would open, but abide by its true nature as a backyard juke joint, maintain the BYOB policy, end sales and door fees, and take donations to compensate musicians. A curfew on the music and lights for the parking areas relieved the impact to neighbors. To return to its roots, new management assisted the aging Mr. “Gip” and leaders, who had taken the joint to a level resulting in the shutdown, ended their engagement with the location.
A native of Alabama, Haynie’s education and career intersect history, anthropology, historic preservation, museum studies, and folklore. Positions she has held include cultural resource surveyor, curator, historic site director, and Main Street program manager. In October, 2010, she accepted the position of Executive Director of the Alabama Folklife Association. Haynie’s contributions include the preservation of historic dry–laid stone walls, preservation advocacy, National Register nominations, community design, and major grant-funded projects. Co-author of Ensley and Tuxedo Junction, Haynie’s recent exhibits are “Alabama in the Making: Traditional Arts of People and Place,” and “We’ll All Sing Hallelujah: Sacred Sounds of Alabama.”