SEARCHING FOR THE GHOST OF A JUKE JOINT PRINCE
DISCUSSED: Toy Phalluses, Synthesized R&B, Intestate Succession Law, Housing Segregation, Funny Hats, Westworld, Vernacular Sculpture, Robert Johnson, "Friend-Ladies", Birth Certificates, Ten Cent Hot Dogs
Willie Seaberry didn’t show for work one Wednesday. But that was unremarkable: Willie was a day laborer on a grain farm. He’d worked there sixty years, and it was a cloudy day, wet, the kind of day Willie knew wasn’t so great to farm. The boss gave him that trust—he knew that Willie knew what days to come to work.
The boss gave Willie more than just trust. He gave him a house to live in, too, a lifetime lease. A spot where Willie could do what he wanted. It was an old ramshackle thing, the kind of building you can’t imagine any way but old, cypress planks for walls and galvanized tin for a roof. On a day lost now to history, like so much else in this story, the house became more than a house. Maybe that's where the trouble began.
It might just be the most famous house in Mississippi, or at least the most photographed. Its decay is offset by a loud array of signs, all hand-painted in the local style. Some clarify the rules: no loud music, no dope smoking, no sagging pants. One offers an invitation: “It’s on,” it says, alongside the phone number to call if you want to join the party at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the last rural juke joint in the Mississippi Delta.
Of course, the party’s over now.
When Willie Seaberry's niece showed up that Thursday evening, the place was locked. Thursday was the one night each week that he opened his juke joint, as he’d done for more than fifty years. His niece would work the door. Willie’s cars were there, and their presence and the locked door worried her, so she called Park, the farm boss. Park called the police. They found him lying on his bed, his hands crossed, his feet crossed. “Right where he wanted to be,” Park says.
Willie Seaberry was 75 years old, about to turn 76—that’s what he told people, at least. He didn’t know. No one knew. No one really bothered with careful records, when it came to black boys born in the Mississippi Delta eight decades ago. Willie didn’t bother with careful records himself. Which was part of the trouble, too, when Willie died a famous man.
After he passed, the memories poured out.
“Po’ Monkey’s was a place that brought people together. The socks-with-sandals European crew. Born and raised Deltans, both black and white. Yankees like me.”
“He sure knew how to throw a party.”
“He truly cared about your experience and wanted to see that everyone was having a good time.”
There is no address for the place on TripAdvisor, just this note: “Take Highway 61 to corner store and get directions, Merigold, MS.” At the corner store in Merigold, the clerk pointed anyone who asked down a dirt road, along a swamp, through old cotton fields. In the middle of a dirt lot, the wooden skeleton of the building slumps toward the earth, holding itself up as if by willpower alone. But the bright color of the signs exuded joy—joy amid hardship—and the extent of the sign collection made clear that this was a jubilance that had been practiced for many years.
The walls inside are a riot of color: old posters and t-shirts and glittery decorative bunting and road signs and neon lights, nearly every surface covered, though in places black plastic garbage bags are visible, tacked to the wall beneath it all. Mismatched tables are topped with mismatched vinyl table clothes, and surrounded by mismatched plastic chairs. Atop the visual assault came an auditory blow—the music was always booming and loud—and then a physical sensation, too: deep bass rocking the plywood floors, the sheer density of dancers cranking the heat too high. It was all sweat and bodies, making the beer taste cool and clean, making the chirping summer moonlight outside feel like a release, when you stepped out there for a break, despite the dense, Mississippi summer heat.
Release: that, you might say, is why the Mississippi Delta’s black residents invented the juke joint in the early twentieth century. Theirs was a life that demanded release. Clear out a house’s furniture, bring in a bluesman, and throw a party. That’s a juke joint.
Po’ Monkey’s—or Monkey’s, as the familiar say it—was an update on the old tradition. Five-dollar cover, bring your own liquor, or buy 40-ounce beers through the Dutch door to the kitchen. It became world famous. If there were a global Hall of Fame for drinking establishments, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge would be a shoe-in.
The name comes from Willie’s own nickname: “Po’ Monkey is all anybody ever called me since I was little,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “I don’t know why, except I was poor for sure.”
But his juke joint was successful. Police found $65,000 stashed in Willie's house and in his truck after he died—which in a county with a median household income below $28,000 is a good bit of cash. There are rumors that there is plenty more still, perhaps buried in the surrounding fields. “A guy like Willie, Mr. Seaberry, he wasn’t really fond of things like banks,” his estate’s attorney told me. “There may be some kind of treasure hunt later on.”
The bar was Willie’s domain—a quiet home, in the six nights a week he was closed—and Willie set the rules. He made the magic, too. He’d come and go throughout the night, his costume always changing: funny hats, sometimes, and sometimes tailored suits, the garb of a juke joint prince. His favorite prank was a stuffed toy phallus, a few dozen inches long, which he hid behind an apron and revealed with a grin. He greeted everyone who entered his door, and in the final years his greeting felt like a blessing: the man himself had become a celebrity, a legend; and here he was, goofing you, inviting you into the group.
The party, in other words, cannot be the same without him, and yet to let the party end would be to disrespect the man. Which is why his death unfurled into tangled conundrums. Who gets his money? Who gets his bar? And—the most pressing question for all the dancers and drinkers who miss their Thursday nights—what do you do with Po’ Monkey’s when Monkey himself is gone?
But before you can answer those questions, you begin to realize there is another, one you need to answer first: who is this Po’ Monkey, this juke point prince, this man beloved by everyone and known by almost no one at all?
A life, tracked in paper:
A birth certificate: born August 24, 1940.
A marriage license: issued January 1960.
The first child’s birth certificate: December 1960.
More children, each their own paper: 1962, 1965, 1967.
(“We had ‘em going down the line,” his wife would say later, in court.)
Already, there are holes and gaps. The birth certificate was not issued until 2012—when Willie needed it to update his driver’s license—and so his birthdate was selected based on recollection. The marriage license shows a different birth year: 1939. But its veracity will be questioned later, when his estate is tangled in a court battle, because it’s got the wrong name: Willie C. Berry.
Small mistakes, different spellings, late filings—these, it seems, are common. The name of the man’s wife changes throughout the documents, too: Eula Mae Drakes, often, but also Ula Mae Drakes. She seems to have settled on Eula Mae Drake Seaberry. Court-ordered DNA tests expose that two of the children named in the birth certificates are not in fact his.
All it took for a young Willie Seaberry to get a driver’s license was his boss going to town, saying the boy needed to drive a truck on the farm.
A judge later acknowledged this looseness: “One of the clear hardships of individuals living in the Mississippi Delta during the 1960s was the substandard education given to many African-American citizens,” she wrote, after examining Willie’s files. “[F]ar too often the official records for citizens of the Delta during that time period contained countless errors.”
Something else changes throughout the paperwork. In 1960, the man is declared “colored,” and then, later that year, “Negro.” He retains that designation through most of the record—until, in 2012, he finally becomes “black.”
When Willie was a boy, there were more houses out along the edges of the cotton plantations of back-dirt Bolivar County.
“Houses was all around,” Eula Mae tells me. These houses, I sometimes think, were the raw heart of the Mississippi Delta. They sheltered men and women, farm workers mostly, who in generations prior who had stoked and mid-wifed the famous Delta blues. “They all gone now,” Eula Mae says, the houses and the workers both.
We sit in the office of her nephew, a lawyer in Vicksburg, Mississippi, sweating in the late-summer heat. For months I have been nervously trying to get in touch with Eula Mae—through her lawyer, through family friends, through anyone that might know her. I was sure she didn’t want to walk back through an ugly battle in court. But now that I’ve reached her, I find she’s happy to share her story.
Willie couldn’t read or write, she says. So when people asked about his wife or his family, “he couldn’t go back and tell them. So he left all that out—[like] it never happened.”
Born in 1942, Eula Mae is still sharp—she recognizes me immediately from a day almost a year earlier when I sat in the back of a courtroom to watch her speak. And she still has fond memories of Willie as a boy. Those who knew him only in his final years at the juke joint—when he was a famous talker, a man with so many antics—“can only imagine what he was like when he was young,” she says. “He was always friendly, he always talked a lot. He had all kinds of women running after him.”
But Willie ran after her, or at least that is the story that Eula Mae tells. “When my mother and father go out to do they shopping—here he come, soon as they leave. He’ll watch for the car to leave, and he’ll run over there.” Her siblings told their parents about the young suitor. “It didn’t make no difference. Here he come.”
She was 13, which would make Willie 17. When Eula Mae was nearly 14, he started calling more formally. “[My mom] used to let him sit there until about 9 o’clock at night, and then he had to get up and go.” She would tell stories to the young boy, and feed him. “He was more like a child of the house,” Eula Mae says.
“He asked my mom to start taking me out to the movies, and he made a promise with her—if I got pregnant, he would marry me.” So in 1960, the young couple went to a reverend. Willie was 20 years old; Eula Mae was just 16.
Willie liked to party, then as much as at the end of his life. He would go out on the weekends, drinking with friends. Eula Mae was scared to stay in the house alone. She would have gone and stayed at her parents’ house, but they ran a juke joint, and Willie didn’t want her there.
“So I said, ‘Well, how can I solve this problem?—is to open one myself.’” She hoped it might keep him in the house.
Willie was against the idea, but Eula Mae persisted.
“I called the man from Cleveland, Mississippi, had him to bring the jukebox in and set it up there. So when he came home, it was there. And that's exactly how it got started. And that was in 1961.”
Eula Mae says she cooked—hamburgers for twenty-five cents, hot dogs for ten—and ran gambling tables on weekends, craps and cards. There was a similar joint on every corner, and the police left them all alone. They protected themselves: a patron named T-Bo, she says, would get drunk and start fights and then leave to get his gun. Eula Mae would have to close the club and wait out front with her brother, a sawed-off shotgun ready to turn T-Bo away.
The toughest trouble might have been Monkey himself.
Eula Mae kept her earnings stuffed her bra, and one day he snatched at it. “He wanted to know what I done made,” she says. She told him that if he stayed home on weekends, he would know. “We was on the floor,” she remembers, “grabbing money and grabbing money.” After that, she began to bury cash in the yard.
It got bad enough, she says, that she thought about killing Willie with that sawed-off shotgun. Instead, in 1965, after five years of marriage, she moved away. Willie followed her to Chicago, but eventually came back—to see another woman he’d been dating, Eula Mae says. They never lived together again.
“But we never lost no friendship,” she says. “I mean, that was the best friendship I ever had.” She said whenever she came to visit Bolivar County, even in the final years, she would stay at that famous house.
So that’s Eula Mae’s version. Willie told people sometimes she was crazy, and that she was always chasing after him, trying to win him back—but Willie liked to tell stories, or to tell listeners what they wanted to hear. One of Po’ Monkey’s closest friends did tell me that he’d met Eula Mae once or twice, and that she was sweet, and that Willie was happy to see her: "laughing, hugging, kissing her on the cheek."
INTERVIEWER: You told me once that you lived in Chicago a little bit. You chased a woman there?
WILLIE SEABERRY: I lived in Aurora, thirty-nine miles from Chicago. Thirty-nine miles. Me and my friend-lady, we got into it up there… I been back here ever since.
I: Never got married?
WS: Well the only thing they showin’ at the courthouse [is] I bought a marriage license.
I: But y’all never had a wedding—a formal wedding ceremony or anything?
WS: No, the only thing they showing, I bought a license. The preacher, he never did turn it in. I talked to Andrew [Westerfield, my lawyer,] about it, and he said, “The only thing they showing here, Monkey—we went through all your papers, and the only thing they showing, [is] you bought a license.” So they ain’t got nothing showing that I—
I: That you’re formally married.
I: So you’re not a hundred percent sure whether you are or aren’t right now, huh?
WS: That’s right. But they ain’t got no papers showing nothing at the courthouse.
I: Think you’ll ever get married?
WS: No—I got this old. I’m 72 years old. All these women looking for money. I ain’t really got to have no damn woman. Shit.
I: You ever get lonely?
WS: Shit, no. I enjoy myself out here. Nobody to bother you.
Willie Seaberry’s body was found on July 14, 2016. A few days later, his close family gathered in the office of his longtime lawyer and signed documents that named a brother and a niece as administrators to the estate. The $65,000 found on his property would be held in trust until all legitimate heirs could be identified, though over $20,000 was spent on the funeral, and another few hundred to install a security system inside the house.
Then, two weeks after the death—on August 1, 2016—Eula Mae Drake Seaberry accused the family of seizing the estate “under false and fraudulent pretenses.”
Eula Mae’s claims were various: that she’d been told the papers she’d signed were intended only to approve funeral expenses; that she’d be informed, incorrectly, that because she did not live in Bolivar County she could not administer the estate; that she was in a deep state of mourning, and had her head been right she never would have signed those forms.
Like the rest of Willie’s life, their marriage was a mess of paperwork. The couple received a marriage license on January 14, 1960. But while a reverend’s name appeared on that license, he never signed a marriage certificate, the official acknowledgement that a ceremony had been performed.
Eula Mae told me that Willie contacted her, years later, when he wanted to marry another of his “friend-ladies.” Eula Mae was fine with that, but required that Willie file for divorce. When he went to the courthouse, he could not find the documents. Eula Mae later discovered the problem when she went to the courthouse herself: the clerk who’d filed the license had failed to understand his name.
In 2015, apparently unbeknownst to Willie and his family, Eula Mae registered the incomplete marriage license, having the reverend’s name added. She later testified that she had been trying to correct the paperwork for years, but it proved difficult to accomplish while living out of town. (She had spent a few years living in New York, and then returned to Vicksburg, where she has family, two hours by car from Bolivar County.) When she brought Willie’s grandson to Bolivar County for a visit, she finally had the document fixed, she said in court.
According to the testimony of a local circuit clerk, these emendations were not properly notated: the reason for the changes should have been detailed in the margin, and then initialed by a clerk. In the end, though, the state of the paperwork does not matter. Mississippi law is disposed towards marriage; in disputes, the burden of proof rests on those claiming a marriage did not exist. Little may be clear about the life of Willie Seaberry, but we know that he and Eula Mae “cohabited,” as the court describes it, and that they had children. These facts make a marriage, at least as far as the state is Mississippi is concerned; and that marriage had never been terminated by divorce.
When a married man dies without a will in Mississippi, his inheritance descends to his widow and his children. So in January 2017, nearly six months after Willie’s death, the former administrators were removed from the estate. Eula Mae—along with her nephew, a lawyer—took their place. (The estate also includes the four confirmed descendants who passed court-ordered DNA tests.) Three weeks later, the estate incorporated under the name “Po Monkey Inc,” and in April announced to the press their hope to reopen the juke joint upon the one-year anniversary of Willie’s death.
Sometime after Willie came home from Chicago, he opened his own club. The year you see most in the record is 1963—that is what it says on the tourism marker out front, at least, and that is the number Willie would often repeat. It conflicts with Eula Mae’s timeline, of course, but Willie wasn’t known for his precision. “I don’t know exactly to a T,” he told the New York Times when the reporter asked when he’d opened the club. “Maybe 40 or 50 years ago.”
Everyone in his family had an animal nickname—there was a Rabbit, a Coon, a Bear. Willie said the “po’” was given to him, but it seems more likely it was his own invention. It is reflective of his particular genius: self-pitying and self-confident at once.
Eula Mae told me that he’d repeat the name as a kind of mantra: “Po’ Monkey gon’ make it,” he’d say, over and over: “Po’ Monkey gon’ make it.”
A man named Larry Grimes drove past the club in 1973. He was searching for junk—just anything old, a bath tub, maybe, or a wash pot, a tea kettle. Larry likes to make sculptures from junk.
“Ain’t nothing here for sale,” he remembers Willie saying.
But then Willie added that the place was a juke joint, and that Larry should come back. A few months later, Larry did just that. He kept on coming for years. “Blues does something to you,” he told me, all these years later. “They make your heart open up.”
Larry is white—he’s what they used to call in the Delta a “poor white”: the sixth of eleven children, he was turned down by the army “because I didn’t have no education,” but then later they drafted him anyway—and now lives in an unkempt trailer that is surrounded by his cobbled-together sculptures. The fact that a poor white was hanging out at a juke joint in the mid-1970s says something about both Larry and the juke. And about Willie, too. Decades later, when Po’ Monkey’s would become famous among blues fans across the world, it was just for this openness: Po’ Monkey’s was the party anyone could attend.
It was also famous for its strange décor—much of which was provided by Larry Grimes. “The artificial dicks and stuff,” as Larry puts it: there are 225 stuffed monkeys, by his recollection, tacked to the walls, each with its own customized, oversized penis, as if to match Willie’s favorite joke. Larry grins as he remembers it.
Willie called Thursday night family night—not because it was all that family-friendly, but because it was at least more wholesome than the Monday-night show, when he’d ship in strippers from Memphis. (At some point in the last decade, this tradition came to an end.)
The photographers found the place in the 1990s, and once the photographers showed it to the world, the world wanted to come to the party, too. There's a college down the road, and students started hanging around, black and white. Once it made the guidebooks, the flood began: tourists from Germany and Italy and Indiana; movie stars and reality-TV crews. In 2007, more than four decades after the party started, the state installed a marker that made the lounge a part of its official blues trail.
“It’s like this holy place that everyone knows about. That place you have to see when you’re in the Delta.”
“I never saw the man without a smile and a handshake.”
“You wonder if the floor will fall through but you keep on dancing.”
“It didn’t matter where you were from or what color you were. Or how awful of a dancer you were. At some point you were gonna dance.”
“I only wish there was live blues.”
My own first time was uneventful. Call it mediocre, really: I found the right dirt road, chose the proper split at the fork; I paid my five-dollar cover, bought myself my oversized bottle of Bud. I sat in a corner, beneath Christmas lights and tacked-up polaroids, beneath the troop of well-endowed monkeys, and sat there, stiff and awkward—an unfamiliar white boy in an ambiguous racial space. I left after one beer, if I remember right. I know I was disappointed, because the music—tinny R&B, with synths instead of horns—was being played by a DJ in a booth.
I went only once more before Willie passed. It felt about the same that second time. I’m not much of a drinker, or a dancer, or a talker. I guess I went to Po’ Monkey’s Lounge because it was a place you’re supposed to go when you spend time in the Mississippi Delta, which is where I live.
Years later, after Willie died, I would regret the disappointment. Will Jacks, a photographer who spent a decade documenting the party at Po’ Monkey’s, told me about the inevitable Swedish tourists who’d come and then scorn the place for its lack of live music—as if that was inauthentic. What was inauthentic, Will said, was shipping in some old black man to play guitar as if this was still 1920. There were bands sometimes at Po’ Monkey’s, but only when someone else booked the place. (Which was a steal: Willie charged just $150.) Willie has said that he never booked a band himself—too much money. That’s not what the regulars wanted anyway: they just wanted to drink and talk and dance. The first juke joints may have featured live music, but almost as soon as the jukebox was invented, that became the music source of choice.
The television show Westworld is named for the dystopian theme park that is its setting, where nearly-human robots allow wealthy customers to enact the Wild West of their dime-novel dreams: shooting Indians, robbing banks, frequenting brothels and saloons. It's not quite a simulacrum, then, because the West was never as Wild as what we put in movies. Call it an indulgence of our quasi-historical fantasies: freezing the world in place, and adding some gaudy colors. That, Will once mused to me, is what the Delta may become.
Consider those words, the blues: picture them.
If you’re white, you’re more than likely seeing some version of the same old scene. A grizzled black man, a tumbledown porch, a guitar in his hand. You’re thinking of Robert Johnson, maybe, had he grown older. You probably don’t care that Robert Johnson’s music was already going out of style by the time he laid it down on wax.
If you’re black and Southern, you’re liable see something else entirely in the words: a more modern music, with contemporary soulful singers, telling their stories over R&B beats. Bobby Bland, maybe, or Denise LaSalle, or JR Blu. Artists all but unknown to the white, hipster blues crowd.
Will Jacks later took me to a club in Marks, Mississippi, called the Old Time Blues Place. The night was a memorial for Willie, but for me it was an education: here were a bunch of Black folks, friends of the deceased, dancing and mourning and enjoying their beers. A DJ played those same tinny tunes that had disappointed me at Monkey’s. Soul blues, it’s sometimes called—a genre of pop music with little national recognition, but that remains popular across the South. The blues lives on, in other words, but the blues have changed. It’s just us white folks who stubbornly cling to the past.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like a celebrity?
WILLIE SEABERRY: [Nods.]
I: Make you feel good?
WS: [Nods.] Yeah.
I: You ever get tired of everybody coming up here, trying to get a piece of Po’ Monkey?
WS: Well, like I tell everybody, if I got the time, I don’t mind talking to you. If I ain’t got the time, I guess—[I] explain it to ‘em, and everything goes lovely.
You know, one time people come by, I’m out there in the field. I say, “Really, I’m at work now, and I ain’t got the time.” So they realize, when you’re working for somebody else, you can’t take up they time.
“[Monkey] loved getting his picture made,” Park Hiter says. Park was Willie’s landlord and employer, the “boss” on the farm where he worked for sixty years. “He loved people,” Park says. “But he never let it interfere with his work here. [Po’ Monkey’s] wasn’t about the money. It was just about doing it.”
Park knew Monkey as well as anyone. He has his memories, too.
Once, Monkey forgot to fill his prescription—as usual. So Park drove to town to get the meds. Monkey had gout; “gouch,” he called it, though whenever anyone asked him how he was feeling, his reply is the same: “Pretty good for an old man.” Park bought lunch, too, for all his farmhands, and as he walked out the door, he glanced inside the styrofoam clamshell meant for Monkey. No cheese: just as ordered. The doctors had forbidden cheese.
“He was slowing down," Park says. “But he’d still do what needed to be done. He knew [what to do]—he’d been out here his whole life. He’d just start doing it. He’d be here every day. He’d come here, [even] knowing we’d not work that day [because of rain].”
Another memory: Monkey came to Christmas lunch. Monkey was always invited: he was family, after all, after all those years on the farm. He always brought his latest girlfriend, too. Park’s wife, Linda, for asked for this girlfriend’s name.
"Puddin," he said.
"Puddin?" she replied. "I can’t call her Puddin. Monkey, I need a name."
“He was having trouble with his gout," Park says. "I wouldn’t let him do a lot of the stuff out here that he used to do. I had been trying to teach somebody else. [But] he didn’t want to show anybody else how to do anything.”
Now Park Hiter sits at home, listening to the May rain. The storm means a break in the long, hard days of spring planting. So Park reminisces. When he was ten years old, in 1964, he’d watch the black folks gather at that house; when he was in his twenties, he’d sit on those steps himself. Now he tries to imagine a juke-joint future for the empty building he owns. An impossible thought.
“I don’t have time to fool with it myself, and run this farm. What I had thought about was basically making a museum. A tribute to him. Specifics, I don’t know. [But] nobody’s gonna run it and have it be remotely like it was. Because it was him.”
It’s not often remarked upon that Po’ Monkey’s was more than a juke joint: it was also a home. Willie Seaberry slept in a bed in a small back room, around which his hats and ties and suits hung loosely. The tiny kitchen was forever cluttered with dishes to be washed.
So much of America’s tragedy rests on questions of space: certain bodies—call them colored, Negro, Black—are strictly bound. Sit in this train car, not that one; swim in this pool, not that one; and, no, you can’t buy a house on that block. Yet the small space that Willie Seaberry was granted he simply turned over to the world. This, to me, feels like a heavy sacrifice, even if it won him fame. He lived in a society that could hardly be bothered to record his identity; and in response he made us take notice, demanded our attention with his hospitality, and that’s why his image has appeared across the world. But in his secrecy and his storytelling, it seems to me that he set his identity adrift: he became a nickname, a set of images that we flip past as we read our magazines, that we tack on our walls. He became whatever we wanted or needed him to be, so we could enjoy the party: a kind of ghost already, even before he died.
People sometimes call the blues is a communal music, where no one owns the song, where, as the sweat flows and the floor shakes, the dancers come together as one. Willie, then, might be seen as a kind of embodiment of the blues, a man who hardly existed except to convene the merriment. Then again, maybe he was secretive so that not every bit of his life—like his house, his weekends, the image of his face—would belong to the whole world.
There are swirls of rumors about the fate of the building. The town of Merigold wants to buy the structure, put it on a truck, drop it in the center of town. Some suggest the local university should take over, or the county tourism board. (Though some worry that those entities will want to turn it into a Westworld of the blues.) Someone wants to buy it for a barbecue restaurant, I was told.
I sometimes think that now that the party is over we should let it fade away. It was a place of the moment, of that night’s gathering, and forever changing: new toys were hung, new rooms built, the music morphing through the decades. It was, in other words, as living and breathing as the man who was its host. Maybe it's no more right to preserve it under glass than it would be to stuff and taxidermy and install a human corpse.
The announced plan to re-open the building on the one-year anniversary of Willie’s death was never accomplished. Part of the trouble stems from the complicated issues of ownership: while Eula Mae and the estate own Po’ Monkey’s name and his image, the Hiter family still owns the building. And Park Hiter told me he first learned of the one-year anniversary plans when he read it in the press. He asked the estate’s lawyer, Daniel Morris, to provide him some kind of proposal—which never arrived.
The most likely scenario, it seems, is that the family will set up some kind of storefront somewhere nearby, where people can buy knickknacks emblazoned with Willie’s famous face: “We want everybody to be able to take a piece of Po’ Monkey with them,” Morris told me. “Just memorabilia, things people would actually appreciate. Some of his favorite things that he loved. Just be able to come out—and have a little bit of Po’ Monkey to be able to take with them.”
INTERVIEWER: So what do you think’s gonna happen out here, after you’re gone?
WILLIE SEABERRY: Everything’ll be gone—dead.
I: Are you okay, when you’re gone, when your time is up on this world, with this place just shutting down?
WS: Yep. Uh-huh. Mm-hmm. Ain’t nobody else gonna do it right no way.
Willie owned a truck, a car, a camper. These were among his few expenses, besides the beers he served and the few employees of the club. He drove sometimes to Vicksburg—two hours each way, there and back in an evening—to take his daughter for casino dinners. He'd show up at other clubs, sometimes, to visit with friends. (“I just go up, show my face, buy a few quarts of beer or something. Get out before all [the young kids] gets started,” he once said.) That was pretty much it. He paid no rent, nor utilities; these were included in his lifetime lease. Thus the rumors: perhaps Willie, like his estranged wife, buried money in the yard. We may never know.
What do we know is left?
There is his image, of course, perhaps soon to be emblazoned on t-shirts available for purchase in a Po’ Monkey’s gift shop. There is the old tenant shack, its fate undetermined. Visitors still drive by to take pictures at least a few days a week. There is his body, which has been embalmed and laid atop rose-colored crepe and placed in a copper coffin that’s sunk into a concrete vault. (As of this writing, more than a year and a half after his death, the gravestone has not yet been installed.) His flashy suits and gaudy hats—the public costume—hang unworn along his plywood bedroom walls, awaiting what comes next. Thanks to the lack of communication between the estate and the Hiters, Eula Mae has not yet retrieved from the building the items Willie owned.
There is also his signature, which you can find at the courthouse in Bolivar County—the legal seal of his intent and identity, as far as the government is concerned. Willie Seabery wrote in a shaky hand. The ‘S’ is backward; some letters are wrong, and some left out. It’s the mark of man who, clearly, was never given the chance to learn to read or write. You could say it’s the one solid piece of evidence amid the ragged facts.
But, then again, I know people who have posters of Willie with a different signature—its letters are firm and confident, an energetic flourish to their tails and spurs. Some people say this was one more trick of Willie’s: you’d bring him your offering, and he’d find some excuse to slip away, and when he came back he’d have the relic signed. But others swear that they watched with their own eyes as he put his pen to their poster—that they have some small piece of the juke joint prince still hanging on their wall.
Boyce Upholt is a freelance writer based in the Mississippi Delta. He is currently working on a book about the Mississippi River—what we've done to it, and the consequences we now reap.
Will Jacks is working on a book of photographs about Po' Monkey's Lounge, due out next year.
A note on sources: Recollections about Po’ Monkey’s were collected from The Skinny, a local newspaper, and from TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews. The excerpted interview with Willie Seaberry was conducted by Will Jacks in 2013, and is used with permission.
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