Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The Ruins of the Bwana Club Juke Joint
Back in the 1970s when I was working at the Austin American-Statesman, I wrote a feature on Joseph Henderson, a street artist who painted commercial signs for beauty shops, bars, cafes, and other small businesses in East Austin, which was largely African-American and Mexican-American.
Henderson had a distinctive style that featured floating heads - renditions of people's heads minus their bodies - along with fanciful, elaborate lettering. It turned out he was a trained artist from Kansas City who'd lived in Austin for years and painted whenever he needed money. A few examples of Henderson's work remain if you look real hard around East Sixth, Seventh, Eleventh and Twelfth streets or out on Webberville Road.
Joseph Henderson opened up the world of juke joint art to me, as did Freddie Cisneros who collected hard cardboard Chitlin' Circuit posters affixed to telephone poles. An extended residency at the New Blue Bird Nite Club in the Como section of Fort Worth, TV's Lounge just east of downtown FW, and the strip of clubs along East Fourth Street east of downtown in a section known as the Bottoms enriched my appreciation for the various styles employed by Joseph Henderson's peers. Then I found Birney Imes' wonderful book of Mississippi juke joints which elevated the art to something serious and formal.
Although juke joints have pretty much vanished from the southern American landscape, I tend to take notice when I discover even remnants, as I did on my drive between Marshall and Karnack near Caddo Lake in Far East Texas.
I don't know who painted the side of the cinder block building that was identified as the Bwana Club, how long it operated, or when it was abandoned for a larger dance club on the same property. But the exterior walls told some kind of story, which I attempted to photograph.
I imagine there are still some jukes hiding back in the pines somewhere in Far East Texas even today. But in lieu of that discovery, this artifact of another time will have to do.