How Henry “Gip” Gipson used music to change the course of history.
By JOSH MATTHEWS
INTERVIEW by JOSH MATTHEWS & KAYDEE MULVEHILL
Photo by BRIT HUCKABAY
HENRY “GIP” GIPSON OVERCAME UNSERMOUNTABLE ODDS AND A LIFETIME OF HARDSHIPS AND ADVERSITY TO BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER THROUGH MUSIC, PARTICULARY THE BLUES. IN DOING SO, HE WOULD CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY AND POSITIVELY INFLUENCE THE LIVES OF PEOPLE AROUND THE GLOBE.
It was the overwhelming sense of insecurity that I felt slow my pace, not the sallow appearance of this dilapidated old nursing home or the acrid smell of urine that was filling my nostrils. I couldn’t get over the idea that I just wasn’t the person who should be doing this. An interview like this one should be done by a professional, a historian, a civil rights activist or another musician like Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, someone who’s shared a stage with this man, someone who’s had the chance to get to know him on a more personal level, or someone who’s lived a little bit of his history would be more suitable for this job. No amount of research or preparation would make this any easier. Nevertheless, I am here now, looking into the room at the long, slender silhouette of a man lying motionless on his side under thin, white hospital bedding. His back is to me. One of his caretakers beckons me to his bedside as she sets forth to wake him.
“Gip, you playing possum again? Someone’s here to see you.”
I pause, waiting for him to come to, praying for guidance, praying for the right words. Then I make my way to his bedside to be formally introduced. He extends his arm, and we hold hands in a gentle handshake. I can tell he is searching for a foothold of recognition, and it’s not there, but his eyes are honest and kind, accepting of me, a complete stranger.
“Mr. Gip, I’ve been to your place a couple of times. I’m sorry, you wouldn’t remember me.”
He gently squeezes my hand and tells me not to apologize for him.
“Well,” I tell him, “I’ve always made a point to speak, but we’ve never really had a conversation.” This is why I am here.
He squeezes my hand gently, and I notice for the first time how incredibly large his hands are compared to mine. I imagine that Gip and I would have been close in height, but his hand completely envelopes mine. I feel child-like in his presence, and I am about to hear one amazing story: the story of Gip’s Place, and the man behind one of the oldest, last remaining juke joints.
Before you can grasp the significance of Gip’s Place, you have to know a little about the history of the juke joint and the history of the blues.
Juke joints first began to emerge in the southeast after emancipation. They were a direct result of Jim Crow laws banning African-Americans from any white establishments. They were organized within any makeshift structure or private home where plantation workers and sharecroppers could gather after a hard week’s work to socialize, eat, drink, gamble, dance, and listen to music. They could be disorderly and dangerous at times. Fights, shootings, and stabbings were not uncommon. “You had to be a man amongst men to survive,” said bluesman Bobby Rush in the documentary Gip. A juke joint’s survival was predicated on the personality of the owner, their ability to maintain order, and of course, the music.
The blues emerges post-slavery, growing within the juke joints scattered throughout the south, particularly the Mississippi Delta. African musical traditions, spirituals, and the call and response patterns used among slaves influenced original musicians, who may have been exposed to jazz, rag-time or country dance music. You might think of the blues as lyrical stories of woe told from the perspective of the downtrodden and unfortunate. In contrast, the blues was actually about overcoming adversity and letting go, breaking free and cutting loose.
“I love blues,” Gip tells me. “I came up under blues. And the reason I chose the blues was an awakening I had to do under the blues people.”
I had to ask, “How old are you, Mr. Gip?”
“I don’t really know how old I am myself. And many more people don’t know how old we are. We have to go back to when I was a junior and from other people that was livin’ on plantations. And when you’re livin’ on a plantation, you don’t have other people to go see about you and tell you your age and things. You had to wait. And you had mid-wives, and they had to come around and give you your age.”
Henry “Gip” Gipson was born, at an estimate, between 1910 and 1920 in Uniontown, AL. He tells me he grew up in Tupelo, MS. Little is known about his early life, but in the documentary film, Gip, he says he discovered the blues in the 1930s, but his parents wouldn’t allow him to “follow it.” Those were dangerous times for African Americans traveling throughout the deep south; a tribulation Gip would have to endure one day. Many musicians would ride the rails to get from town to town, seeking out the most popular and lively juke joints to display their talents. Initially, Gip relied on his feet, walking through miles of woods and along the outskirts of towns to seek out places where he could listen, learn, and play.
“I like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hawkins, Slim [Harpo]. These are all the people I came up around and under,” Gip tells me about his time learning the blues.
Someone close to Gip tells me that he was present the night that Robert Johnson was stabbed. Most historians have concluded that Robert Johnson died by poisoning, the victim of a jealous boyfriend of a woman he was getting along with. But sources close to Gip insist that Johnson was stabbed by a jealous woman, and he died later of sepsis.
“Lots of people were stabbed,” Gip says, but he doesn’t elaborate, nor does he suggest that the story has any merit. I realize that there is a substantial amount of lore surrounding this man, but based on some of his other accounts, it’s unlikely, but not implausible that he could have been in the area around that time.
Sometime around 1950, Gip moved back to Alabama, where he settled in Bessemer. He would work in the coal mines, steel plants and build train cars for the railroad before eventually taking ownership of a cemetery and working as a gravedigger. In 1952, on the back corner of his lot where his yard began to level out into a pasture, he set out to build a ball field for youth. But when the kids in the area expressed more of an interest in his music than in sport, he began to teach children about music, a service he would continue to perform throughout his life. He set up a tent in that back corner, and on Saturdays, friends and blues lovers would congregate, giving birth to Gip’s Place.
At 80 years old, Miss Bay is a long-time friend and employee of Gip’s Place. She tells me that she’s known Gip since she was a little girl. For as long as she can remember, Gip was “bopping around on guitar.” In 1957, he was playing in an all-white establishment in Hueytown, where he says, “You were still not recognized for more than what you put out.”
One of the patrons asked Gip, “You hungry boy?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
The last thing he remembers is accepting a plate of food from a little girl. They dragged him from his seat, stomped his hands under their cowboy boots, and nearly beat him to death. He was thrown out, hands shattered, bloodied, unconscious and left for dead. He would recover from his wounds, but his entire world view had been shattered. Gip found out who these men were and where they congregated. He contemplated retaliation. It was at this point where he says God intervened.
Gip tells me, “God is the only thing that stands. He stood and never moved. If you stand in a place, He will wait for you. And when he waits for you, you can find Him anywhere you go.”
Gip went north. He reconnected with John Lee Hooker and met Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry was one of the first black musicians to be successful with a white audience. It was Chuck Berry’s club, Bandstand, which opened in early 1958, that provided a spot for black and white teenagers a place to feel safe together. Berry was also enjoying success as a touring musician.
I asked Gip to talk about the best performance he’d ever seen.
“I can’t just really say the best performance. The best performance that I’ve ever been in outside the [Gip’s] place was in Boston. And I was up there, and we had some problems, but we got up with Chuck Berry and them. But seeing the way as I am, it’s what brought me to where I am today. Belief [from] Chuck Berry and other people.”
He goes on to tell me, “These are the people that got me to where I am today. Belief and people, they’ll get you to where you want to go.”
Gip would return to Alabama with a guitar given to him by Chuck Berry, a treasure that was later lost in a fire. But Gip came home with another gift, less tangible, yet far more pivotal to the development of the music and culture of Birmingham. Gip returned to Alabama with restored confidence in people. He had regained his love of performing, and he had witnessed the power that music had to bring people together, regardless of the color of their skin. Henry “Gip” Gipson made it his mission to reverse the negative stigmata that surrounded the juke joint.
“I don’t separate no black and white nowhere,” he says in the documentary Gip. (Alabama Public Television, 2018) “Everybody’s the same in the eyes of God, and when God’s coming, pigmentation isn’t going to keep you away from it.” He goes on to say of Gip’s Place, “This is your house, his house, his house, my house, her house and everybody that comes here.”
I don’t separate no black and white nowhere.From the documentary Gip, Alabama Public Television ©2018
Gip would continue to face adversity, adversity that would have made lesser men quit. Crosses have been burned in his yard. He’s been beaten, shot, and stabbed. His guitars have been stolen. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, the city of Bessemer shut him down for operating as a “business.” People of all walks of life came out to support him in front of the city council. Eventually, after making some upgrades to bring his building up to code, he was allowed to continue to operate as a club as long as he wasn’t making money from his operation. He’s overcome illness, survived a fire and a lightning strike, and he even withstood being run over and trampled by a stampede. In spite of evil men, natural disasters, or bureaucratic red-tape, in over 60 years, Gip rarely missed a Saturday night. He opened every night with a prayer and “Amazing Grace,” and people from all corners of the globe would come to drink, eat, dance, and celebrate music on this little corner in Bessemer, AL. IF they could keep up, at the end of every night, they would have the privilege of watching Henry “Gip” Gipson take the stage with his guitar, slide, and harmonica to sing and play the blues.
“And I feel so good about it that I walk out sometimes and cry when they get here at night,” he quotes during the documentary, Gip.
“And I feel so good about it that I walk out sometimes and cry when they get here at night”
Perseverance, faith, and conviction would establish Gip’s Place as one of the oldest operable and authentic juke joints in the south. It’s the last one in Alabama, and one of only four or five left anywhere.
Unless he’s quoting scripture, which he does with near perfection and with a heightened sense of conviction, volume and clarity, he often speaks metaphorically. His words are like lyrics and provide insight into the way he sees the world. He uses words like “standing” and “carrying” profusely and meaningfully. He talks about how important children are, the way that positivity spreads with every decent human interaction, and the simple, yet unconquerable truth of the Golden Rule.
“Mr. Gip, you’ve been covered in the press by the BBC, Asia One- by agencies and press all over the world. How does that make you feel?” I ask.
“How does it make me feel? It makes me feel the Spirit and it moving towards other people to do the same thing that He did for me. He carried me there. I’ll carry them. And when I carry them, they will carry someone else. …And when you know one thing, you got all these problems that run at you, and the next thing is you’re in their prayer room. And God is the one that is the savior of everyone in here. Each one got to stand on the tracks, and when you’re weak, the Lord said you got to follow His tracks. And you can find nowhere else or where the sound went because He got it like that. And I’m walking to Him where the sound is now. And I’m fine.”
“Mr. Gip,” I tell him, “Thank you for your time.”
I wasn’t prepared for what he would ask me next. “Are you going to take your time and talk when God speaks? Because He speaks to people that He wants to speak for others. So, go and tell them that I love them. That’s all it takes.”
So, go and tell them that I love them.
I went back by to see Gip the other day to congratulate him on being recognized by the United Way and Positive Maturity’s 50 over 50, which also honored author Fannie Flagg, jazz musician Eric Essix, Gus Malzahn, Eli Gold, and Nick Saban.
When I approach, he shakes my hand, and we talk awhile. I’ve found him in a deeply reflective mood on this day, more so than the last time. He tells me that he can feel himself making his way down the track, where the music is, and I hold his hand as tears run down his face. He pats my hand as I wipe his eyes dry, and I realize that he’s comforting me because his tears aren’t tears of sadness, but joy.
As I am leaving, I recall something he said in the documentary film Gip. “From the dust a man comes to the dust he shall return, but blues is a thing that waves death away for a while.”
“From the dust a man comes to the dust he shall return, but blues is a thing that waves death away for a while.”
We’ll all return to dust. But the thousands of people who have come to know Gip through his music and have celebrated the blues at Gip’s Place will “carry” Henry “Gip” Gipson’s love for music and people, and the blues will indeed keep death away.