oral history

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 Jewels oral history session hosted

WILL interns and Dr. Morford from the University of Illinois Laboratory High School pose in front of Coahoma County Higher Education Center with Alysia Burton Steele (left) and Dr. Rolando Herts (right) of The Delta Center.

WILL interns and Dr. Morford from the University of Illinois Laboratory High School pose in front of Coahoma County Higher Education Center with Alysia Burton Steele (left) and Dr. Rolando Herts (right) of The Delta Center.

The Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Coahoma County Higher Education Center recently hosted an oral history session in Clarksdale. The session featured University of Mississippi photojournalism professor Alysia Burton Steele, author of “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom,” a collection of oral histories and photographs of African American church mothers from the Mississippi Delta.

Dr. Janet Morford, history teacher and director of the WILL oral history internship program (http://will.illinois.edu/community/project/university-high-documentaries) in the Department of Social Studies at University of Illinois Laboratory High School, brought 11 of her high school interns to the Delta to conduct oral histories. Morford is a June 2014 alumnus of The Delta Center’s National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop. She learned about Steele’s oral history work from Dr. Luther Brown, retired director of The Delta Center.

“The NEH Most Southern workshop creates highly committed and influential educational and cultural ambassadors for the Delta region,” said Brown. “Over the years, workshop alumni have made return visits to the Delta on their own, bringing students, co-workers, family and friends, introducing them to the culture and history of the region.”

“We are pleased that Dr. Brown remains connected to The Delta Center through the NEH Most Southern workshop,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, current director of The Delta Center. “He regularly sends Delta news e-blasts to our NEH alumni network, which now has over 500 members. The most recent e-blast led to the creation of this oral history session with Alysia Burton Steele, Dr. Morford and her students at the Coahoma County Higher Education Center, where they learned about doing oral history work in the Delta. They also learned about The Delta Center, the NEH workshop, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and most importantly, each other.”

For the latest Most Southern e-blast, Herts encouraged Brown to include information about Steele’s “Gathering of the Delta Jewels” event taking place in Mound Bayou. When Morford read about it, she realized that her oral history team would be visiting the Delta during the event. She seized the opportunity to connect her students with Steele.

The Delta Center convened the group based on its relationships with Morford, Steele and the CCHEC through NEH, the MDNHA and Delta State. This yielded a rich conversation about the importance of connections in oral history work.

Morford and her team members were thrilled with the experience.

“Today’s session demonstrates that the circle of influence keeps widening for the NEH Most Southern Place on Earth workshop,” said Morford. “That’s the true spirit of the workshop and of doing oral history work. The more that we talk to each other, the more we learn from each other, and the more we realize that we still have much more to learn.”

Herts facilitated an overview of these connections, highlighting the roles and contributions of all session participants. Jen Waller, director of the CCHEC, gave a brief historical overview of the CCHEC complex and its relationship with Delta State.

 

Jen Waller, director of the CCHEC.

Jen Waller, director of the CCHEC.

“We are so pleased that Dr. Herts and The Delta Center used the Coahoma County Higher Education Center in Clarksdale as their meeting space for intellectual exchange,” said Waller. “As a satellite campus of DSU and Coahoma Community College, the CCHEC is the perfect setting for discussions focused on history, culture and life-long learning.”

The Delta Center’s Lee Aylward discussed how the group’s visit helps to fulfill and sustain the educational impact of the NEH workshop.

“Dr. Morford’s return visit with her class is an outstanding example of what the Delta Center had hoped would be an outcome of these very prestigious NEH workshops,” said Aylward. “We want our alumni to bring students and encourage friends and coworkers to visit the Delta and learn our history and its importance to the rest of the world.”

Herts shared The Delta Center’s mission and its work with the MDNHA to promote the history and culture of the Delta, in part through oral history research. This led to the introduction of Steele as the featured presenter.

Steele was thrilled that Morford contacted her about meeting with the WILL interns and was pleased that The Delta Center and CCHEC were willing to host the session. She made a special trip from Oxford to Clarksdale to participate in the session, ready to share the joys and challenges of the oral history craft.

 

Alysia Burton Steele (far right), author of “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.”

Alysia Burton Steele (far right), author of “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom.”

“I was very impressed with the WILL interns and the depth and breadth of their knowledge about oral history research,” said Steele. “While they know a great deal already, they also were so very humble, which is so refreshing and encouraging. They were eager to learn by listening to me talk about how I gathered the stories from the Delta Jewels church mothers. Listening intently and respectfully, as well as knowing when to respond, are key skills in oral history research. This group obviously is highly skilled and well trained, so I must give kudos to their teachers, Dr. Morford and Mr. Sutton. They are doing great work.”

Bill Sutton, a history teacher at the University Laboratory School, who is traveling with Morford and the student interns, has made educational visits to the Delta in the past. He inspired Morford to apply for the NEH Most Southern workshop and is pleased to see the results of her participation.

“In addition to this session with Alysia being a high point of our trip, Janet’s experience with the NEH workshop has opened up more options for us to study and understand the Delta,” said Sutton. “I have been coming to the Delta for several years now. With Janet, our internship program leader and a NEH workshop alum, the visits will keep getting better and better. Janet bringing this knowledge and experience back to our school has been remarkable. Alysia also is remarkable, and The Delta Center and Delta State are tremendous educational and cultural resources. I have every expectation that we all will continue to work together in the future.”

“The fact that the WILL Interns have had such a meaningful exchange with Alysia Burton Steele shows that high school students can develop very high level skills – by doing oral history and by talking with experts like Alysia who have also engaged in this demanding but rewarding work,” added Morford. “Being able to come to the Mississippi Delta with the support of our school, and to engage with the resources of Delta State through this session, has been extremely valuable for our students. This truly has been a transformative educational and cultural experience for all of us.”

Student WILL Intern Iulianna Taritsa also appreciated the unique opportunity.

“My time in the Delta has been an amazing and enriching experience,” said Taritsa. “I could see and feel the rich history, and I am so glad that there are people like Alysia Burton Steele and organizations like The Delta Center for Culture and Learning that are helping others understand the significance of this area. I know our WILL team from Uni High has learned a lot from the people we met in the Delta and hopefully we will be able to tell our stories and theirs once we get back to Champaign-Urbana.”

The Delta Center has offered the NEH Most Southern workshop for the past six years. This summer, 74 K-12 educators from across the U.S. once again are being immersed in two six-day experiential learning workshops in the Mississippi Delta. Participants take what they have learned back to their schools, teaching students and colleagues about the rich history and cultural heritage of the Delta region. The Delta Center has engaged Brown to return to the region and facilitate the workshops.

The NEH Most Southern workshops are held at Delta State University and throughout the region. The dates for the 2015 workshops are June 21-27 and July 12-18. For more information, visithttp://deltacenterforcultureandlearning.com/southern-place-workshop/.

The mission of the Delta Center is to promote greater understanding of Mississippi Delta culture and history and its significance to the world through education, partnerships and community engagement. The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and is the home of the National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshop and the International Delta Blues Project. For more information, visit http://www.deltastate.edu/academics/delta-center-for-culture-and-learning/.

The Coahoma County Higher Ed Center is a partnership between Delta State University and Coahoma Community College. Its mission is to expand educational opportunity for the people in Coahoma County and surrounding counties by offering classes and events that will encourage personal development and promote a higher quality of life for all people in the Mississippi Delta.

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