Poor Monkey’s Lounge (known to everyone as Po’ Monkey’s) is a jook joint surrounded by cotton fields on a dirt road outside of the small town of Merigold in the central Mississippi Delta – a part of the United States that is all but invisible to the rest of the country.
Merigold is in Bolivar County, which is one of the poorest counties in Mississippi, which has the lowest per capita income of all the United States. The average income in Bolivar County for 2005 was just over $12,000 per annum.
While Bolivar County may be poor financially, it, and the rest of the Delta, has all manner of other riches. It sits on some of the deepest and most fertile topsoil on the planet and it has deep veins of musical and literary history that still flow and surface at places like Po’ Monkeys and dozens of other small bars scattered across the delta.
You can get a short glimpse of what goes on inside Po’ Monkey’s in this footage of “Cadillac” John Nolden & Bill Abel at Po’ Monkey’s in May 2007.
Po’ Monkeys has been providing quality entertainment and cold beer to locals and all manner of visitors for about 50 years.
Po’ Monkeys is owned by the wonderful Willie Seaberry (aka Po’ Monkey) who keeps a kindly but firm eye on his clientele, who he regards more as friends than billfold fodder.
By day Po’ Monkey works the nearby fields with tractors and other machinery – two nights a week he runs Po’ Monkeys Lounge.
By day he wears working clothes – but by night he’ll dress up just fine – sometimes changing his outfits six times during the course of a night depending on his mood or whim.
From the outside, apart from the lurid and idiosycratic signage, Po’ Monkeys looks like many of the ramshackle sharecroppers shacks scattered around the delta – but the signs outside let you know that something else altogether is happening here.
$5 entry, $3 beer – no fire or liquor licenses or other permits or authorities – and Po’ Monkey vigorously enforces his own strict set of rules – no baseball caps, no guns, no baggy-ass pants – this effectively excludes young teenage gangsters from the lounge – no fighting, no beer bought in and no dope smoking.
Inside, Po’ Monkeys is a darkly colourful and glorious mess. 3 small rooms crammed with thrift store reject furniture, a kitty-corner dancefloor, the obligatory pool table, a floor that is challenging when sober but just fine after a few drinks and a low ceiling from which hang dozens, if not hundreds of stuffed soft-toy monkeys.
The walls are a moving feast of reflective silver plastic sheets, photos and found images, texture and clutter – here a collection of antique tractor photos, there a giant beer sign hung upside down, posters from past occasional live shows and all manner of stuff that might take some considerable time to work out the what, why, where and who of.
Po’ Monkeys is open two nights a week – on Mondays he gets a crew of, err, what we might call ‘working girls’ down from some small town over near Memphis, Tennessee who provide entertainment of the strictly non-family kind. Thursdays is called ‘family night’ but you wouldn’t want to bring your rug rats and you might want to leave the more sensitive members of your family behind. The music is well loud and DJ’s Candy and Doctor Tissue (don’t ask) play only genuine old-school soul-blues of the definitely risque variety – which goes down a treat with the clientele.
Po’ Monkey’s has been the subject of quite a bit of press attention over the years. The New York Times came to visit a few years ago. Good Morning America on the ABC broadcast a story on Po’ Monkey’s last year – it has some great pictures but ignore the advertisements at the start of the piece and the predictions of the imminent demise of Po’ Monkeys and other informal drinking and party houses across the south – Po’ Monkeys isn’t going anywhere too fast.
Luther Brown of Delta State University just up the road at Cleveland Mississippi has been visiting and writing about Po’ Monkeys for years and presents perhaps the best overview of Po’ Monkeys at Southern Spaces, an interdisciplinary web-based journal about the regions, places and cultures of the American south in general and the Mississippi Delta in particular. Southern Spaces is an online journal exploring the real and imagined places of the American South and their connections with the wider world and provides some interesting insights into life down here.
I loved my all-too-short time in the Delta – and I’ll be back next year to spend a couple more nights sittin’ and sippin’ at Po’ Monkeys.