I sat on a church pew in Bessemer, Alabama, surrounded by strangers that aren’t really strangers at all. Despite different backgrounds, skin colors and ages, those gathered at a funeral in Hopewell Baptist Church on a chilly October afternoon in 2019 were all connected in one respect: to celebrate the life and legacy of a man whose motto had never rang truer than on that day, “No black. No white. Just the blues.”
The picture I just painted of the funeral seems extravagant and grand, but Gip’s Place is far from it. It isn’t much to look at from the outside. If you were to drive by during the day, you’d surely miss it. On Saturday nights however, in the backyard of 99-year-old Henry Gipson’s humble home in Bessemer, Alabama, Gip’s Place is pure magic.
“There’s no other place like it,” former manager Diane Guyton said. “There was just a spirit over that place that you couldn’t describe. To me, he was the most kind, most gentle man I’ve ever met. It’s true that he loved everybody, and I miss it—miss him.”
And I miss it, too. When I first moved to Birmingham in 2017, I didn’t expect to find a sense of belonging in a weather-worn tin-roofed garage filled with people of all ages, all races, all backgrounds— all brought together by one man through his love for people and, of course, the blues. Yet here I am, writing this story in 2021. Gipson passed away in 2019 at the age of 99, his guitar by his bedside and a song in his heart. After nearly 70 years of operation, Gip’s Place is currently not open to the public and the twinkling Christmas lights that once illuminated the small juke joint in vibrant technicolor have been dim since March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ownership conflict following Gipson’s death.
However, there’s good news on the horizon for music lovers. According to a family friend of the Gipson’s, Gip’s Place is set to reopen sometime in late April or early May. Gip’s Place is one of those rare finds that seems to have been around forever and would continue to be around, its history and culture too rich to be forgotten or diminished. While the juke joint’s reopening comes as a sigh of relief to those familiar with its historical and cultural significance, it remains to be seen what Gip’s Place will be like without the presence of Henry Gipson.
It’s difficult to grasp that I am among the last generation of people that had the opportunity to shake Gipson’s hand and hear him strum his beloved guitar up on that stage. But with the reopening of Gip’s Place under new ownership may perhaps come a rebirth, a new generation of people coming together to learn, listen and love the blues. After all, that’s how Gip’s Place was born in the first place. And as they say, history repeats itself.
To understand the significance of Gip’s Place in the present, we first have to take a journey back to the past. According to “All Music Guide to the Blues: The Definitive Guide to the Blues,” juke joints emerged in the Southeast after emancipation, a result of Jim Crow laws prohibiting African Americans from entering white businesses. They were formed to serve as a place where plantation workers or sharecroppers could congregate to socialize, eat, drink and listen to music.
Similarly, the blues genre came post-slavery and spread throughout the juke joints all across the South. African musical traditions and spirituals that were commonly used by enslaved people influenced musicians who were likely familiar with ragtime, jazz and country dance music. Although it is a widely held misconception that the blues comes from the perspective of those that are down on their luck, the reality is that the blues consists of lyrical stories about overcoming adversity and gaining freedom.
“I love the blues,” Gipson said in a 2019 interview with “MusicBHAM” just two months before his death. “I came up under blues. And the reason I chose the blues was an awakening I had to do under the blues people.”
Henry Gipson, lovingly referred to as “Mr. Gip” by friends, family and strangers alike, was born sometime between 1910 and 1920 on a plantation in Uniontown, Alabama. At some point, he settled with 1920 and stuck with it. The exact year is a bit hazy because, well, Mr. Gip couldn’t quite keep track himself. According to the claims of several locals, his 86th birthday was celebrated a few times too many. If you don’t believe them, take it from Mr. Gip himself.
“I don’t really know how old I am myself.” Gipson said, according to “MusicBHAM.” “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.”
Gipson’s passion for music stemmed from his upbringing in church, where he lived and breathed southern gospel music. He learned to sing, play the piano, harmonica and the guitar before he discovered the blues in the 1930s. However, according to the documentary film entitled “Gip,” his parents would not allow him to “follow it.”
His parents’ weariness was understandable given that the 1930s were a dangerous time for Black Americans traveling throughout the Deep South, but Gipson decided to follow the blues wherever it took him, despite the risk. Black musicians would often board a train from one town to the next in pursuit of popular juke joints where they could showcase their musical skills. Mr. Gip, however, relied on his feet. He walked through countless miles of woods along the outskirts of towns to search for opportunities to listen, learn, play and live the blues.
In the 1950s, Gipson settled in Bessemer, Alabama, where he worked in the coal mines, steel plants and built train cars for the railroad before eventually taking ownership of a cemetery, where he worked as a gravedigger. In 1952, always one for building community, he set about creating a baseball field for the children in his neighborhood on a portion of his land where the yard levelled out into a pasture. However, the baseball field wasn’t quite the homerun that Gipson was expecting.
“He sat out on his porch and he played music, and the kids all wanted him to teach them to play guitar.”-Diana Guyton
As it turns out, the children were substantially more interested in Gipson’s music than running around the bases. He began teaching the children about the blues and how to play the guitar, something that he would continue to do and cherish throughout his life. Due to popular demand, he put up a tent in his backyard, and on Saturday nights, music-lovers would gather together to celebrate the blues. And so in 1952, Gip’s Place was born.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,”
It’s 8:30 p.m., and the crowd stands. If you have on a hat, you’d better take it off. If you have a drink, sit it down. Anyone who knew Mr. Gip knew that a night beginning without a bluesy rendition of the popular Christian hymn just wouldn’t be right.
“Was blind, but now I see.”
Heads bowed; eyes closed. Next, a prayer. A reverent hush falls over the juke joint, and the tranquility of the moment settles in harsh contrast to the electric energy coursing throughout the room. If you’re tempted to crack open an eye and take a peek, you’d see Mr. Gip sitting on a stool in the far-right corner of the stage. His eyes are half open, and he’s scanning the crowd, a lazy smile on his weathered face. Your eyes meet his, and you startle at being caught. But he just gives you a wink and a nod, and then the prayer is over.
Now the show begins. Mr. Gip loved the old blues, the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Slim Harpo. Having always enjoyed teaching younger generations about the blues, Mr. Gip has a young artist performing tonight. He’s singing the classics, as well as some more modern hits for the few college students in the crowd. It’s Todd Simpson and Mojo Child tonight, and they’re a fan favorite here at Gip’s Place.
Simpson isn’t just any up-and-coming musician. He plays with the spontaneity of Jimmy Hendrix and the bluesy inflection of B.B. King, but that alone isn’t what makes him special. Simpson has synesthesia, which means that two of his senses get crossed. As he plays the guitar, he sees colors, and these colors tell him exactly what notes he needs to play. Simpson has no concept of musical notes; he just feels the music. And someone with such ingenuity fits right in at Gip’s Place.
“It’s a once in a lifetime place,” Simpson said. “I’ve known Mr. Gip since I was 8 years old. He took me right in, and I’ve been playing at Gip’s Place since I was a kid.”
Much like Mr. Gip, Simpson knows how to make the crowd feel welcome.
“We were pretty much a part of the band,” college student and frequenter of Gip’s Place Audrey Dworak said. “Todd, he’s persuasive without even trying. He just gave us a head nod to go up on stage, so we went. My friend and I, we made a horrible attempt at singing backup vocals for him. The coolest thing is that we were just a part of it, and everyone was. I remember that we were just walking out that night with Todd, who performed, and that wasn’t limited to us—that’s everyone. You’re just there. There’s no performers or audience, there’s no separation. Everyone’s in it together.”
And that’s the thing about Mr. Gip. He didn’t care who you were, where you were from or what you looked like. At Gip’s Place, you were family.
“From day one, Gip introduced me to everyone he knew at the juke joint,” Gip’s Place regular Eric Napier said. “The folks at Gip’s were like my extended family, and they were always looking out for me.”
As for me, the first time I met Mr. Gip, I didn’t have a clue who he was. I was still reeling from being swung around on the dance floor by complete strangers who seemed thrilled to have a newcomer in their midst. Suddenly I was standing face-to-face with an elderly man, a white fedora tipped slightly to the side atop his head, the kindness in his eyes softening the harsh signs of age on his face. He reached out and shook my hand, and I couldn’t help but take note of how his roughly calloused palms dwarfed mine.
“Thank y’all for coming out here tonight,” he said. “You come back and visit us again.”
And so I did, nearly every Saturday night between that first visit in 2017 until October 2019 when he passed. I met people from all over the world at Gip’s Place throughout those years, but none were more memorable than that man who quietly sat on a stool in the far-right corner of the stage, admiring what was to become his legacy: the togetherness of a community, complete equals in each other’s eyes.
“I don’t separate no black and white nowhere,” Mr. Gip said in the documentary film “Gip.” “Everybody’s the same in the eyes of God, and when God’s coming, pigmentation isn’t going to keep you away from it. This is your house, his house, my house, her house and everybody that comes here.”
No black. No white. Just the blues.
“Mr. Gip wanted to bring everybody together,” Guyton said. “He didn’t want anybody to see color, and he tried to show love. God watched over that place, and you could feel it. If the world could be more like Gip, we’d be in a better place.”
And at the end of the day, I believe that Mr. Gip would have been delighted to see the crowd of people at his celebration of life in October of 2019— black, white, the young and the young at heart. “Amazing Grace” begins to play, and as one, as if all in on a secret, the crowd smiles.