Po' Monkey's

Interview with Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry: A lost and found file from The Delta Center for Culture and Learning

A couple of months ago, while searching for materials for our summer 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshops, Lee Aylward, The Delta Center’s resident maven of marvelous storytelling, happened upon a mysterious white box tucked away in the corner of our storage room in Ewing Hall. 

“Though I did not recall seeing it there before, it looked oddly familiar to me,” said Lee, in her signature honeyed Southern drawl. “Something told me to pick it up and bring it downstairs to the office.” 

 The inside of Po’ Monkeys Lounge as seen at night clearly illustrates the transformation that occurs inside a jook joint. The Lounge is plastered with bright lights, tinsel, picture, letters, foil, and any other bright, colorful, or shiny decoration. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

 The inside of Po’ Monkeys Lounge as seen at night clearly illustrates the transformation that occurs inside a jook joint. The Lounge is plastered with bright lights, tinsel, picture, letters, foil, and any other bright, colorful, or shiny decoration. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

Lee and I soon discovered why the box looked so familiar to her: inside was a treasure trove of compact discs (you know, those shiny silver round plastic things that were once considered cutting-edge audio and data storage devices) from the early 2000’s, around the time that Lee started volunteering with The Delta Center as an oral history transcriber. The discs contain a plethora of Mississippi Delta voices waiting to be uploaded and shared with a brave new online world. Among those voices is a particularly iconic one: the late Willie Seaberry, better known as Po’ Monkey, proud proprietor of the legendary jook joint Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi. 

Willie Seaberry passed away in July 2016 on a Thursday night, known as “Family Night,” a special time when locals and tourists from around the country and the world would gather at the storied establishment. As is tradition, that particular Thursday, we were taking a group of NEH “Most Southern” workshop participants and Robertson Scholars from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill to experience the heart and soul of America’s last known rural jook house. The Delta Blues scene has not been quite the same since his unexpected passing.

Below is a transcript of a January 2003 interview with Willie Seaberry conducted by Dr. Luther Brown, the retired Founding Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, and his colleague, the late Dr. Henry Outlaw who passed away in February 2015. Lee, who has been with The Delta Center nearly as long as it has been in existence, often tells visiting groups that The Delta Center was started in the year 2000 to “give the people of the Delta back their heritage.” 

Mr. Seaberry standing in front of some of his collection of pictures, post cars, and other decorative items. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

Mr. Seaberry standing in front of some of his collection of pictures, post cars, and other decorative items. - Kathleen Robbins, 2003

In keeping with that fundamental value, it made perfect sense to assign the task of transcribing the interview to Keith Johnson, a Mississippi Delta native who is the grand-nephew of Muddy Waters and also is a rising young Blues musician in his own right, being a recent winner of the Vicksburg Blues Challenge. Keith is a graduate assistant with the International Delta Blues Project which is housed in The Delta Center. Will Jacks, a visionary Mississippi Delta native photographer and Delta State University faculty member, also advised on the transcription process, as Keith wanted to create a video synopsis of the interview that could appeal to fellow Millennials. Will’s book on Po’ Monkey’s is being published by University of Mississippi Press soon – be sure to check out his photo essay published in Mississippi Arts Commission’s Mississippi Folklife about it. 

As the old saying goes, no one works alone. That was the case with The Delta Center then as it is now. Dr. Brown worked with Willie Seaberry and Dr. Outlaw on this interview. He also engaged photographer Kathleen Robbins, a faculty member in Delta State’s art department at the time, and Suli Yi, a journalist at Voice for America, to capture images and video before the interview was conducted. Kathleen and Suli’s artful contributions are featured in Dr. Brown’s essay “Inside Poor Monkey’s” published by the journal Southern Spaces in 2006.   

I shared the interview transcript with Dr. Brown before it was posted here. This was his response: 

I had forgotten that Monkey was so talkative this time.  We tried interviewing him a couple of other times and he just wouldn’t talk to the tape recorder.  Several things did come out of this interview, but we never completed the multi-author article. I believe Kathleen left DSU [Delta State University] and took another job shortly after the interview, and we just never got back to the project. I wrote an article for Southern Spaces – better check the date though because I don’t remember if it was before or after the interview.  We did produce the posters featuring Kathleen’s photos. Those photos are talked about in the interview, and it sounds like they were taken just prior.  
We also succeeded in getting a Blues Trail historic marker for [Po’] Monkey’s, and the planning for that would have begun around the interview time, although installation might have been later.  In any case, that marker was one of the first set of markers, so it was installed not too long after this interview.  We also got 2003 declared the Year of the Blues in Mississippi, by Governor Musgrove, who is also mentioned in the interview.  I think we took him to Monkey’s after he came over to our house for dinner, when we discussed him proclaiming the Year of the Blues. 
Another consequence of this interview is that the Bolivar County Supervisors did change the name of the road to “Po’ Monkey’s Road.”  They also then paved a bit of the road on the west side of Monkey’s so that tour buses could come (many bus companies refused to drive on unpaved roads).  There were once road signs, but so many of them were stolen that the County stopped putting them up.  The [Delta] Center produced metal road signs and sold them to visitors at one time. 

Dr. Brown also shared with me that this recording was not meant to be treated as an oral history. He said it is “more like a fact finding interview that we were using in preparation for writing and talking about Monkey and his Lounge.” 

It is in this spirit that The Delta Center makes this rare recording available to the general public, particularly for researchers, writers, Blues enthusiasts, students, music and cultural critics, fans of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and anyone else who may be searching for something that might have seemed lost but was there all along, waiting to be discovered and shared. 

Yes, this is for you – for all of you: the found voice of Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. 

  • Dr. Rolando Herts, Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning
    Monday, May 22, 2017
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Delta Center provides a tour for a Jewish group

The Delta Center recently gave a tour to the TENT group.

The Delta Center recently gave a tour to the TENT group.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University recently provided an introduction to the Delta for the TENT group sponsored by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson.

The TENT program is a series of week-long seminars that immerse 21-30 year old Jews in full impact experiences of culture, cuisine and community. This group was led Rachel Myers of the Institute who described the week- long program as “beginning in New Orleans and spending a week travelling the Delta exploring the Jewish experience in one of this nation’s most distinctive, complicated, and fascinating regions, discovering the best that the South has to offer.

Music, art, food, and visits to Jewish communities large and small made this a week the participants will never forget. On their stop in Cleveland, they were introduced to the Delta by Dr. Rolando Herts and Lee Aylward of the Delta Center. They enjoyed a meal with the congregation of Temple Adath Israel and topped the evening off with a visit to Po Monkey’s, one of the last surviving rural juke joints or “jook” houses, as documented by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and blues folklorist Barry Lee Pearson.

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Delta Center and MDA promote the Delta

Participants in the recent Mississippi Development Authority tour of the Delta, outside Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold.

Participants in the recent Mississippi Development Authority tour of the Delta, outside Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning recently worked with the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) to help businesses better understand the Delta’s rich cultural heritage.  MDA provided several days of touring for site locators, people who represent industries looking for locations to build manufacturing plants.  The Delta Center helped excite these agents about the Delta by reviewing the Delta’s history and the roles that the Delta’s people have played in the American story.

Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center, and Malcolm White, director of Tourism for the State, accompanied the visitors throughout the region.  MDA officials also gave the group information about incentives for businesses, permitting and licensing requirements, and other aspects of doing business in Mississippi.

The Delta Center is the manager of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, a partnership with the National Park Service that promotes the heritage of the Mississippi Delta.

Photo: Participants in the recent Mississippi Development Authority tour of the Delta, outside Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold.

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Delta Center introduces Dollar General to heritage

Dollar General administrators in front of Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, MS. Photo by Lee Aylward.

Dollar General administrators in front of Po' Monkey's Lounge in Merigold, MS. Photo by Lee Aylward.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning recently introduced the administration of Dollar General’s Indianola Distribution Center to the rich cultural heritage of the Mississippi Delta.  The group spent their Saturday learning about the Blues, Civil Rights history, and other things Delta, ranging from where the Southern crosses the Dogto the works of Dr. T. R. M. Howard to historic Po’ Monkey’s Lounge.  The Indianola Distribution Center is one of the largest buildings in the Delta, with 850,000 square feet of warehouse and office space and a staff of 500.  Keenan Davis, the Sr. Human Resources Manager, asked the Delta Center to help his administrators better understand the region they serve by exploring its heritage.  The Delta Center is the manager of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, a partnership with the National Park Service.

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Delta Center for Culture and Learning assists film crew from South Africa

Dr. Luther Brown, Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, recently worked with a film crew from South Africa on a television documentary featuring South African music star Juanita duPlessis, “the darling of Afrikaans Pop.”  The documentary will include stops throughout the southeastern United States.  In the Delta, the program focused on the Blues, with stops at Dockery Farms, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, and the Delta Blues Museum, among others.  The show features Brown describing the Delta’s heritage to duPlessis, and includes live performances by the All Night Long Blues Band (Sean “Bad” Apple, Martin “Big Boy” Grant, and Dixie Street), and Terry “Harmonica” Bean.  Roger Stolle, of Clarksdale’s Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, also appears.  The documentary will eventually be broadcast in Afrikaans, with English subtitles.  Its Afrikaans title is “Country Hart met Juanita.”  

Juanita duPlessis’s official biography includes this information about the star:  “Juanita du Plessis is a South African singer, born in Windhoek, Namibia. She became known for her big hit“Ska-Rumba” and since then has followed it with constant hits.  Her singing career began in 1998 with her debut album "Juanita". That year she won numerous CMA (Country Music Association in Namibia) awards, including as best singer, best songwriter and the Association’s Award for outstanding achievement. Juanita writes all of her own material, if not covering existing songs. In 2010, she received the award for most popular South African artist. Out of the eleven CD’s and 5 DVD’s she has released, she received two platinum, 6 double platinum, five triple platinum, two 4x platinum and one 5x platinum awards, a total of 44 platinum awards. Due to her achievement she is known affectionately as ‘Die Platinum Princess.’”

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Delta Center assists in music video production

Manu Lanvin in Kossman’s 1972 LeMans convertible at historic Dockery Farms, known around the world as the birthplace of the Blues.

Manu Lanvin in Kossman’s 1972 LeMans convertible at historic Dockery Farms, known around the world as the birthplace of the Blues.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University recently helped French Blues singer Manu Lanvin film a music video for his latest release "Sur la route sixty one" ( On Highway 61).  Manu (who goes by his first name) and his producer/photographer, Alexandre Villeret, spent over a week filming in the Delta.  Highlights of their visit included an evening of live Blues at historic Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, during which Manu performed with Mississippi’s own Terry “Harmonica” Bean.  Bean has recently toured in France, and also been featured in the French Blues Magazine called “Blues” as well as in Living Blues Magazine.   Kossman’s automotive, in Cleveland, provided access to their 1972 LeMans convertible, which appears in the music video.

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