What inspired you to make this film?
We were already fans of Gip’s Place and as we became more familiar with Mr. Gip and his fascinating life story, we felt compelled to document it. A gravedigger by day (he still digs graves with a shovel) and a bluesman by night, Gip's life has personified the struggle that is at the very foundation of the blues. He is one of the last remaining original proprietors of an actual juke joint and one of the only remaining owners who is also a blues player. With his aged, watery bluish eyes and easy hugs, he welcomes all visitors to his home and does his very best to bring people together — sometimes literally as he pulls two strangers up from the crowd and has them dance together. His genuine joy as people come down the driveway and into his ramshackle little juke is contagious and we feel so very lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know him and share his story with the world.
What makes this a Southern story?
It is a uniquely Southern story because juke joints emerged out of the Jim Crow-era South as informal venues for the emerging blues players to hone their craft, giving way to what would become the foundation of American music. Over the past several decades juke joints have disappeared as modern night clubs, casinos and time itself have rendered them relics of the past. When we began shooting this film, there were only about five original juke joints left in America, and Gip’s Place was the last one in Alabama. Mr. Gip grew up just a few miles from the heart of the civil rights struggle. In 1957 that struggle came west to an all-white venue where Gip was playing. As Gip performed, a group of men descended on him, stomping his hands and nearly beating him to death. He made a choice to seek a way for people to come together, white, black, rich, poor and find community through the blues. His experiment defied logic at the time and yet has stood the test of time and has proven to be a beacon of hope as this nation — especially the Southern part of it — continues to struggle with racial tensions and inequality. He still starts each Saturday night show with the statement that “there is no color here, no black, no white, only the blues.”
What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
Once we were able to convince Mr. Gip that we had the best of intentions in wanting to tell his story (which did not happen overnight), we launched in to what we thought would be a short film, focusing on this amazing character and his magical Saturday night blues parties. Then, about four months into shooting, on May 4, 2013, Gip’s Place, the last one in Alabama, was raided and shut down by the Bessemer police. The mayor had heard complaints of loud music in a neighborhood and decided that Mr. Gip was operating an unlicensed business and decided to close him down. We were filming that night and as we watched the reaction of Gip, the band and the audience — some of whom had traveled from across the globe to visit Gip’s Place — to the closure, we realized that we had a much bigger story on our hands. At that point, we regrouped and expanded the narrative. Of course, as we followed the attorney sessions and city council meetings, we watched Mr. Gip make the decision that he was not going to stop doing what he had been doing since 1952. We realized that in order to tell the story fully, we needed to create a larger context and get first-person interviews with the other three juke joint owners so that audiences would understand what part these people played in the creation of the blues, and in the establishment of some of the biggest musicians we have come to know and love. We traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana to visit and meet with these last remaining juke owners, all with their own unique struggles, but all with concerns that these places were dying out. It was in meeting and getting to know these other men, and the many historians who have followed the creation and demise of these blues havens, that we began to really appreciate the significance of Henry “Gip” Gipson and his juke joint and why he was so very determined to keep doing what he’s been doing. The biggest blessing of it all has to be calling Mr. Gip a friend, and feeling that this film may expand his impact and influence beyond the reach of the lucky people who had the opportunity to experience Gip’s Place in person.
How did the story change you?
The whole experience of this film was a four year roller coaster. It was a labor of love that went from a short to a feature and kept expanding as the story changed and forced us as filmmakers to continually let go of preconceived ideas about story and structure and allow the story to tell itself. We became very close to many of the characters and many of them are like family. We were trusted to step inside their world and walk in their shoes and gain a perspective that has colored the way we see everything from music history to race relations and even the Bible. It is harder to be jaded about progress when you see Mr. Gip push through boundaries and defy convention over and over again. It’s an inspiration to watch him fight the same fights but always through love, always through community and with unbending faith.
What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
Our hope is that people will appreciate the very real struggles that Mr. Gip, and the men and women like him, made so that we can enjoy the blues. It was a genre of music that was born out of pain and necessity, really, and it would not exist if not for the music lovers who fought to make time and space for musicians to explore and play. Perhaps after seeing this film, cities and communities will take note of the valuable history in their own backyards and cherish it.
Reel South Season 3 Trailer: Gip
In 1952, gravedigger by day and bluesman by night Henry ‘Gip’ Gipson opened a ramshackle backyard juke joint in Alabama. Once scattered across the rural South, juke joints have become relics of the past. In the Spring of 2013, Gip’s Place, the last juke joint in Alabama, was raided and ordered to shut down. Gip follows the battle to keep the blues alive.