Juke Joint Dreams
Robert “Bilbo” Walker’s Wonderlight City comes
alive as the newest juke joint in the Delta
Story by Casey Hilder | Photos Courtesy of Roger Stolle
There are a few things you don’t see open up in 2017, even in the Delta. You don’t see phone booths, you don’t see video rental places and you definitely don’t see juke joints like the recently opened Wonderlight City in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The brainchild of bluesman Robert “Bilbo” Walker, Wonderlight City represents the lifelong dream of a man with a lifetime’s worth of experience in the Southern music industry.
“I was born with it,” Walker says of the idea behind Wonderlight City. "When a man gets to be 80 years old, he doesn’t have too much time left to explore all his old ideas. I’m getting weaker every day. But I’ve had this idea in my head for years and years and by now, can’t much stop me. I just hope I have enough time left now, at this point, where I can see it become what I want it to be. ”
A handwritten sign posted at the corner of Kline and Johnson Road leads visitors through gravel drives into a wooded area that now plays host to Walker’s nine-and-a-half acres of nostalgia situated on an old family property.
“It’s only three turns from the Hampton Inn, the newest big hotel down here,” says Roger Stolle, local blues historian and Bilbo’s unofficial manager. “The amount of time that this old man has put into his juke joint dream out here in the countryside is outstanding. Had he not put up that sign, you wouldn’t really have any indication that you had arrived.”
Stolle has become one of Bilbo’s biggest supporters over the past five years, assisting the 81-year-old bluesman with booking arrangements and bringing projects like Wonderlight City to the community forefront. “I say ‘unofficial’ because last time I checked, managers get paid,” Stolle jests.
Bilbo’s Wonderlight City is by all means a hand-built structure, archaic in all the best ways and representative of an authentic experience that recalls the great blues stories of yesteryear, the kind that begins in a cotton field and ends onstage in. “It’s my own land, all mine,” says Walker. “It’s old slave land, handed down from my people. Nobody can tell us what to do out here.”
It’s no coincidence that this structure popped up not too far from the crossroads where fellow bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly struck a Faustian bargain inexchange for his great picking skills.
“It was the goal to make this the greatest place in the world,” says Walker. “A good place where people can go out looking for good times, not trouble.”
An old army barracks Quonset hut would become Wonderlight City, and after several years of plotting, planning and a few false starts, the structure is finally ready to glow. He’s had the drab olive exterior painted a brilliant blue, added some paneling and, of course, lights. Strings of Christmas lights provide most of the illumination for the club, and everything — that is, the music, the lights, the cooler for the beer — is powered off a single gas generator.
“You just can’t enjoy playing at your own club as much as you enjoy playing at someone else’s,” says Walker. “But Buddy Guy owes me a favor since I’ve played so many times at his place, so he owes me one to come down here.”Upon its June opening, many locals questioned the sign proclaiming that “The Legendary Wonderlight City” had opened its doors. You might wonder how something opened so recently could be considered legendary. Maybe it’s all in the reclaimed, refurbished nature of the place or the distinct selection of Clarksdale legends that frequent the joint. For Bilbo, “legendary” has always been a state of mind. “You could easily imagine that this thing has been running 35 to 50 years,” says Stolle. “There’s not a lot here to suggest this is a modern establishment.”
The energy, optimism and old-school grit provided by Bilbo drove the project. With a skill honed through single-string guitars backed by voices trained in the fields and churches, Bilbo represents a dwindling generation brimming with musical prowess in an area that’s seen many pass through. “There’s nowhere in the world like Clarksdale, Mississippi, I tell you,” says Walker. “I’ve been all over the world playing. Jerusalem and some more places. But if I had to, I would walk back to Clarksdale.”
Warmly personal but with a wild streak, Bilbo has spent most of his career playing in blues clubs but wasn’t captured on a solo album until 1997. He was featured prominently in the 2015 documentary, I Am the Blues, alongside musicians and performers like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Bobby Rush, R.L. Boyce and Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal.
“It’s like hanging out with a fossil, or more like a bee trapped in amber that suddenly springs to life when the right notes are struck,” Stolle says.
Wonderlight City will be open for the upcoming Sunflower River Blues Festival week, which takes place August 8 through 13.
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