A crossroads store, bar, "juke joint," and gas station in the cotton plantation area. Melrose, Louisiana, June 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
African American migratory workers by a "juke joint". Belle Glade, Florida, February 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Today's lesson in history and etymology concerns the word "juke." Probably you have heard this in connection with a commercial device used for playing records, beginning with 78 rpms and evolving to 45 rpms, i.e., the jukebox.
If you are old enough, you have likely seen and used these. If you are younger, think of these as giant iPods into which you would feed coins in order to play musical selections. They started showing up in the United States around 1940, and got, some of them, quite elaborate, with neon lighting or tubes that featured bubbles in liquid. Put a nickel in, punch a button or two, and the song you wanted to hear blared from speakers. They were staples of restaurants and bars for decades, and you can still find them, though the technology has changed a bit since records mostly went away. You can buy reproductions of the classic modes that play CDs, and even itty bitty ones that play MP3s.
Not the same, though ...
The term comes from the places where they were sometimes installed, juke joints, and the origin of the word itself, though somewhat shrouded in time's murk, is likely from the Gullah word, "joog," or "juke," meaning rowdy or wicked.
Originally, juke joints were typically ramshackle places where people got together to drink and dance and gamble, listen to music, mostly blues back in the day, and get into trouble. They started as gathering places for people of color, who were generally forbidden from hanging out in the white folks' establishments, though there came to be white trash jukes soon enough.
Sometimes the jukes were at crossroads, attached to stores. Sometimes they were old buildings taken over. Sometimes, private houses.
I first heard the term "goin' jukin'" when I was a teenager in Louisiana, and by then, it meant sneaking into a bar with the other underage guys, drinking beer, listening to music, and trying to pick up girls. Not all that different from what it meant a hundred years earlier, when you think about it ...