Willie Little, Artist and Storyteller

Juke Joint

Sarah Caroway
Group Shot

Juke Joint 3 Minute Video

Welcome to my Juke Joint site page! This installation was inspired by childhood memories, vivid scenes playing like movie reels in my head as an imaginative little boy growing up off Pactolus Highway near Little Washington, North Carolina in the late 60s, early 70s. I witnessed all kinds of going’s on, grown folks talk, moon pies, butter cookies and penny candy in a brown paper bag at my daddy’s mom and pop store (Little’s Grocery) during the light of day. On Friday and Saturday nights, you would think you were in a different establishment. I witnessed dancing and romancing to the soulful sounds of Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin--pickled eggs and pickled pig’s feet, along with a quick 50 cent shot of gin in a Dixie paper cup. It all happened right there, at the counter of the same little hole in the wall of my daddy’s mom and pop store. It became a bona fide Juke Joint!

Juke Joint is a multimedia interactive installation, a ¾ scale 320 square foot depiction of my father’s grocery store/juke joint in the late 60s, early 70s. I wrote, performed and produced the narrative audio track of the colorful patrons of the illegal liquor house. Take a walk inside and you will hear voices and the rhythm & blues just a pumping, both emanating from the heart beat of the installation; the Wurlitzer Jukebox within the shotgun shack. Ambient sounds breathe life into the “patrons” of the late night haven with my storytelling. Southern drawls, raspy voices and colloquial expressions I recall from my childhood fill the deliberately thrown together mid- century decked out store. These sounds elevate the installation to a multisensory experience. My nostalgia becomes a artistic 3-D historical & artistic documentary. You just might think you are in the real thing while you’re witnessing some of the sights, sounds and smells of my daddy’s Juke Joint.

The Juke Joint was more than a liquor house. It was a meeting place, a place of refuge and solace where black folks unbottled their joys and pains, served them with a 50 cent shot of gin and shared how to make the bitter twist of life easier to swallow, if not sweeter to the taste.

The installations’ goals are to celebrate this slice of rural life as well as document a fading slice of the American landscape. I invite the viewer to experience the characters’ vivacity, their passions, and their desperate drive to not merely exist, but live joyfully and thrive despite the challenges of a marginalized existence.

The installation began as a series of four vignettes made possible through a 1994 Regional Emerging Artist Grant. The work became a full- scale installation through an Artist Project Grant from the North Carolina Arts Council Project Grant in 1996 and originated in a shotgun house at the Afro American Cultural Center in Charlotte, NC. The exhibit has traveled to over a dozen venues throughout the country since 1995 and in 2003 received a special grant from the Arts & Science Council.

In 2003 Juke Joint traveled to the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Gallery where audiences swelled to over 305,000 in its three- month run. The original two- month run was extended due to the exhibit's popularity. The Juke Joint has engaged, informed and delighted audiences of every age, race & nationality.

The Smithsonian exhibition was well- received, reviewed by Richard Paul of the Washington Post on September 29 and discussed in African American Art and Artists, a revised edition, by Samella Lewis, PhD, both in 2003.

  • Paul praised the exhibit for “its ability to materialize memory—the installation is soaked in affection, music and celebration.”
  • The esteemed artist and art historian, Samella Lewis states on page 316 “like the Harlem Renaissance artists Melvin Gray Johnson, Palmer Hayden and William Henry Johnson, he (Willie Little) depicts ordinary people.” These artists have found the beauty and the honor that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary.
  • According to essayist, Bill Gaskins at Parsons the New School for Design, “In his seminal and critically celebrated installation titled Juke Joint, Little staged scenes from his rural past in meticulous detail, complete with complex characters embellished by a sound environment….additionally, music and regionally specific spoken words and patois play a significant role in Little’s process of memory and autobiography.” Little has written a memoir entitled In the Sticks wherein the Juke Joint is pivotal to the stories.
  • Ana Alvarez, former associate publisher of Algonqin Books in Chapel Hill wrote, “what struck me most about this collection was your great talent for pulling the reader into a story. I especially enjoyed the rich evocative narrative voice, the delicate attention to detail and the sensitive portrayal of characters.”
    When the installation traveled to the Charles H Wright African American Museum in Detroit in 1998 over 100,000 visitors poured into the gallery, many of them repeat guests.
  • During the Detroit venue, the installation was reviewed by over a dozen Detroit area newspapers. (see vitae for list)
  • The artist has made radio appearances to promote the successful installation on NPR’s The Todd Munce Show in Detroit in 1998, KERA , Dallas in 2000 and WUNC, Raleigh, NC and Radio Disney in 2002.

I have discovered that as I tell my personal stories, many people from various backgrounds tell me I am telling their stories. A banker sporting a starched Brooks Brothers suit walked up to me-- tears welling up in his eyes, saying, “This exhibit validates my existence from the shame of poverty. Thank you!”

Even a visitor from Lome, Africa glowed with emotion, exclaiming that as she walked in the shotgun shack she felt at “home”… “You took me back home to the Shabeens in my native Togo.” Her voice trembled as she spoke.

In 2011 the work was selected to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It has met the standard for our nation’s first national museum opening of NMAAHC in 2016. An unprecedented number of millions of national and international guests are anticipated to visit both the physical and virtual museum sites of this work.

About NMAAHC

I would like to thank my family for giving me the richness of these experiences. I thank you one and all who have contributed to making the Juke Joint a success. I invite you to stay tuned for updates.

Miss Odell and Miss Beaulah, Lifesize mannequins with sculptural matter, 1996