The story of bluesman Henry “Gip” Gipson is much like the story of blues itself: both are rooted in the Deep South; both are enigmas in their own right and are genuinely loved for it … well, at least by those who appreciate them. Gip lives in Bessemer, Alabama, and started his own blues juke joint in his backyard called “Gip’s Place” in the early 1950s—wherein he’s thought to have performed every Saturday night since 1952. He, his music and his juke joint—one of the last in the country—are the topic of Patrick Sheehan’s new documentary, “Gip,” which is scheduled to show at the 22nd annual Cucalorus Film Festival on Friday, Nov. 11.
Sheehan first read about Gip in a magazine article a friend shared with him. He says he was “fascinated from the beginning” with the man and his juke joint. “Juke joints are the venues where the blues started and we had one of the authentic, real-deal jukes still going in Bessemer,” he recalls.
Though, once he came to an agreement with the current Gip’s Place management to start filming, Sheeham didn’t want to meet Gip right away. “I wanted at least one scene with none of my influence—just Gip being Gip,” he explains. “That turned out to be the opening scene of the film where he almost blew us both up and then caught himself on fire.”
Now that we have readers’ attention … encore sat down with Sheehan to discuss his documentary; a little juke-joint history and their impact to blues as we know it today; the fate of Gip’s Place in a new era; and of course, the man on fire himself: Gip.
encore (e): Tell readers more about your impression of Gip when you first met. Who is this blueman viewers meet and what does he represent in blues music?
Patrick Sheehan (PS): Gip is a fascinating man. He’s somewhere between 80 and 100 years old (no one, including Gip, knows for sure), he’s a gravedigger by day (he still digs graves with a shovel) and he runs one of the last four authentic juke joints left in the country every Saturday night. He’s a bit of a paradox; he’ll mix whiskey and moonshine and dance ‘til 2 in the morning … but he’s devoutly religious. Every Saturday night before the band plays there’s a prayer. It’s an interesting mix of raising hell and praising God.
Gip has been running Gip’s Place since 1952 and hasn’t missed a single Saturday night. He’s one of the very last conduits to the early days of the blues. He hung out with John Lee Hooker and Chuck Berry and he still plays that deep delta blues like Son House and Charley Patton. Those guys are almost all gone so we are extremely lucky to have him. Fortunately he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves – he was just inducted into the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame this year.
e: Describe Gip’s Place. What are a few first impressions folks might have—good and bad?
PS: Gip’s Place is in a very high-crime area outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It’s pretty difficult to find because there are a handful of roads in the neighborhood that are permanently closed. GPS is iffy at best. But once you find it, all of the stress of getting there goes away. It’s a place with no pretenses. You’ll see doctors and lawyers and you’ll see homeless guys and drifters. There are always locals and visitors from overseas. It’s a mixed bag and everyone gets along. It’s pretty fascinating.
e: We get to meet some patrons of Gip’s Place in this film. Could you tell us more about one or two of those people, who they are and the additional insight they provide?
PS: This is a dramatic film in that we were there when the police came and shut Gip’s Place down and following his effort to keep his juke joint going is really the backbone of the film. However, what really makes it all work is the characters. Of course, the other juke owners are all “larger than life” but the people at Gip’s Place really connect you to the story. A crowd favorite is Elmer, who is at Gip’s Place every Saturday night. He’s a local guy who doesn’t own a car, so he walks there and dances all night. He really loves Gip, which was evident when he spoke at the City Council meeting after “Gip’s Place” was shut down. Another favorite is Ms. Bay who has known Gip for over 50 years. She’s a no-nonsense lady who spends a good part of her life trying to keep Gip on the straight and narrow. She’s great, really funny and as honest as the day is long. Somewhere along the way she became the de facto narrator of the film.
e: What was your knowledge or experience with juke joints prior to filming?
PS: I had a very cursory knowledge about juke joints before we made this film. I love delta blues and I knew about jukeboxes (which came out of juke joints) and not a lot more. I was most interested in Gip the person when we started the film, and really, he stayed the focus of the film. We named the film “Gip” because we stayed true to that. But when we started doing our research and hanging out in the juke joints, we realized what a treasure they are and how close we are to the end of this era. Of course Gip and his juke are inextricably linked so we knew that Gip’s Place would be a big part of our story.
e: Did you decide to delve into this piece of Jim Crow Era and music history with Gip’s story or did you naturally start to uncover it with Gip?
PS: We really tried to tell that part of the story only as it related to juke joints and to Gip himself. There are other films about blues history that can take the time to really tell that story but that’s not what this film is. So when the lines intersected we told those stories and I think they really helped inform the viewer about juke joints and about who Gip is.
e: What is the significance of juke joints in today’s American culture and music? Why is it important to preserve, or let go?
PS: Juke joints started as juke houses, which was literally just people clearing out furniture in their living room and having a traveling bluesman do a show. They did that because there was nowhere else for these guys to play. Had that not happened, God only knows how the blues would’ve formed. And since the blues is the root of American music, who knows what we’d be listening to today were it not for the juke houses and later the juke joints. So the impact of jukes on our culture is hard to quantify but it’s undoubtedly an important part of it and will continue to be for a long time.
I think it’s important to preserve the legacy of the juke joints. Music has changed a lot since Gip started his juke joint but none of it would’ve been possible without the blues. These last few authentic juke joints won’t be around much longer, so I think the important thing is to experience and enjoy them while they’re still here and then to memorialize them and keep that history alive for future generations.
e: Without giving too much away, can you tell readers more about the two juxtaposing sides in this documentary between Gip’s Place supporters and those who want to see Gip’s Place gone?
PS: There are definitely two distinct groups: Those who want Gip’s Place to continue and those who don’t. The supporters are both people who go to Gip’s Place and just enjoy it as a place to hang out on Saturday night, and those who support it for its cultural significance. For the most part, the people who don’t support Gip’s Place are locals who don’t want to deal with the hassle of it being there. The issue for Gip is that from a purely legal perspective his detractors have a case and can get municipal support for their position which really complicates the situation. Essentially it’s a grandfather clause versus city ordinances, and that’s where it gets difficult.
e: Do you see these sides as “protagonists” and “antagonists” to each other? Please explain.
PS: I don’t think there’s a clear cut protagonist and antagonist. Both sides have valid points. I just tend to err on the side of cultural significance. I’m personally willing to give up certain modern comforts for the sake of history but not everyone is. From the city government’s perspective they were stuck in the cross hairs, but I think they made some pretty serious mistakes in how they handled it.
e: Where is Gip now?
PS: Gip is still going strong. He’s still digging graves and playing every Saturday night. He has been honored as an Alabama Blues Ambassador and was just inducted into the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame. The State of Alabama has done a good job promoting him and all that he has done for the state and for the blues, so he stays busy traveling around for all kinds of events. He’s told me on numerous occasions that he’s not going to die and I’m starting to believe him.
To learn more about Patrick Sheehan’s documentary “Gip,” screening at the 22nd annual Cucalorus Film Festival at 10 p.m. on Nov. 11 at Thalian Hall, visit http://www.gipthemovie.com. Sheehan will be in attendance for a Q&A after the film’s screening.