It is not exactly news to report that a very large, significant part of Alabama history is written in the African-American experience. From slavery, through The Civil War, the Jim Crow era, The Civil Rights Years, right up to the current day their often bittersweet history is as much a part of Alabama as the leaves on the Cucumber Trees. It can be seen in the tapestry of the culture. It can be heard in the echoes of Alabama’s difficult history over the course of the previous century. It can be heard in the rhymes of the music. It can be seen in the deeply-lined face of a 92 year-old juke joint owner named Henry Gipson.
As his generation has passed on, Henry – known simply as “Gip” – is the face of a bygone era. He’s been running his Juke Joint, Gip’s Place in his home of Bessemer, Alabama since 1952 and we are told that it is the last of its kind. In the early part of the 20th century – before Martin Luther King – the landscape of Alabama was dotted with these small backwater establishments, places where blacks could congregate and embellish their culture away from the tyranny brought on by a segregated social system that was the law of the land. As times have changed, Juke Joints have largely disappeared until only Gip’s Place remained. Inside is life and energy. The place is crowded every Friday and Saturday night. The patrons are moved by the music and by community. We are reminded more than once that Gip’s Place draws diverse cultures where it was once only a cultural haven for blacks.
Peter Sheehan’s extraordinary documentary Gip tells the story of Gip’s experience right up to the current day. Gip himself is fascinating. He’s 92 and works two jobs that might be mistaken for being symbolic – he works his Juke Joint by night and works as a gravedigger by day (no backhoe, just a shovel). There’s a wry smile on his face that almost seems permanent and underneath it there is a fire in his soul which he puts into his music. When he grabs his guitar, the music that flows from it is the kind of music that dares you to sit still. Even his music has fire in it. Gip been a bit of a firebrand his whole life and that may have come from his experience. Back in ’57 he was nearly beaten nearly to death by a group of white men when he dared to receive food from a young girl – one of segregation’s rules was that blacks did not receive food from whites. Today there is a spark in him that wills him to keep going. It is fitting that when we first see him in Gip, he’s using gasoline to light a fire in an old oil drum.
The bulk of the documentary Gip is about his recent struggle with the local government. Gip’s Place has caused a bit of a stir since the local Bessemer residents (of which there seem to be about six) began to complain that the volume of the music was making too much noise, an action that defied city ordinance. The city has given warnings that if complaints continue, Gip’s Place will be no more. Gip, ever the fighter, kept his place going and eventually his place was shut down and his case went before the city council. That leads to a good old fashioned David and Goliath confrontation between council folks who want to stick to the letter of the law and the regulars of Gip’s Place who remind them that his is the only Juke Joint left in Alabama. Closing it down would be closing the door on an important chapter of Alabama history. Where the story ends up, I will not say except that the attending audience at The Sidewalk Film Festival were where the film premiered completely transfixed.
Watching the film I was reminded of another documentary from years back called Brother’s Keeper about an elderly backwoods farmer who was charged with murdering his own brother. When he was put through the legal system without ever really understanding his rights, the community of locals rose up in his defense not because they knew him but because they felt that his rights were being infringed upon. Here it’s much the same thing. Gip is being pressured by a city council that seems indifferent to what his place means in Alabama history. In his defense they come forward to defend him based on the bedrock American belief in fair play.
The third act of the movie is kind of exhilarating. We’ve met a fascinating individual and we feel for him and his pride and his heritage and we want him to succeed. Gip has seen many things in his life, many struggles, and many tragedies. Here he is in his 90s, still with fire in his soul and music in his heart. He maintains a piece of history that no one wants to see go away and we want the best for him. In that way, his story is kind of inspiring.