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[caption id="attachment_170740" align="alignright" width="300"] Arthur Dove II’s legendary grandfather and namesake supplied as many as 120 juke joints throughout central North Carolina.[/caption] The teenager slipped out of the pickup truck

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[caption id="attachment_170740" align="alignright" width="300"] Arthur Dove II’s legendary grandfather and namesake supplied as many as 120 juke joints throughout central North Carolina.[/caption] The teenager slipped out of the pickup truck

Arthur Dove II’s legendary grandfather and namesake supplied as many as 120 juke joints throughout central North Carolina. photograph by Charles Harris

The teenager slipped out of the pickup truck and into the smoky adult world of dancing, gambling, and carousing. Arthur Dove II had a job to do, and it wasn’t to party. Dove, known then as Bubba, and his partner had traversed dirt roads, slicing through soybean fields and pine forests to a glorified shack — one of countless juke joints that once lit up North Carolina’s countryside like a constellation of stars, fueled by music, mischief, and moonshine. The job of Dove and his partner on such afternoons in the 1960s was to collect the weekly jukebox take and freshen up the selection of records that kept customers depositing nickels, dimes, and quarters into the machines.

Stretching back to the 1800s but taking off between the World Wars, juke joints were quasi-clandestine clubhouses where sharecroppers, factory hands, and other rural working people could gather to cut loose, Pony and Twist, raise a toast. “They were deep down in the country — one road in, one road out,” Dove reminisces now, with rumbly affection for those raucous times. “Some were part of a regular home. Some were like little cafés. Some were little shacks. You could get fried chicken, barbecue. You could play cards. You could get corn grain liquor — that bootleg liquor, moonshine. Fifty cents a drink in a little Dixie cup.”

Libations were a primary draw, but shrewd juke joint owners mostly operated without liquor licenses or other official papers — though perhaps not without certain, ahem, relationships with law enforcement. The other draw was music, sometimes supplied by a band, but most often pumping from a jukebox. From classic hits to the latest sensations that you might otherwise have to strain to hear on a fuzzy radio. From pounding, jumped-up jive to sweet, swaying ballads.

In the Jim Crow era, juke joints provided Black Southerners in the country with the kind of communal entertainment that was readily available to whites. And in the 1950s and ’60s, these places helped ensure that everyone could experience the musical revolution and sense of liberation that pulsed through rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n’ blues.

Dove was familiar with dozens of these hard-scrabble haunts. From the ’60s to the ’80s, he worked for his legendary grandfather and namesake, Arthur Dove. “You couldn’t run any game on him,” the younger Dove says now, 40 years after his grandfather’s death, “because there was no game he hadn’t seen or tried himself.”

Juke joints helped ensure that everyone could experience the musical revolution.

Born in Richmond County, the elder Dove landed in Raleigh in the 1930s with a fat wad of cash amassed during a stint in the Merchant Marines. For reasons unknown to his grandson, Dove plowed his savings into jukeboxes. Within a couple of decades, the smooth-talking man who was partial to dark suits and Beech-Nut chewing tobacco supplied as many as 120 juke joints throughout central North Carolina. That vast number kept the younger Dove and his partner — who always packed a pistol in the pocket of his wide trousers in case of trouble — busy collecting coins and stocking the latest sounds.

“When I restocked, I’d always play a few of the new records for free: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Betty Wright, Aretha Franklin,” says Dove, now 70. “The first time I played Otis Redding doing ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ that blew people away.”

The juke joints weren’t fancy, but they were, in their way, fantastical. Not marvels of architecture or decor, but nonetheless iconic. Like a song you can’t forget, juke joints have endured in memory, calling the adventurous to travel to them through night-cloaked fields and into cricket-chirping forests to have the time of their lives.

What juke joints lacked in polish, they made up for in personality. Their names were legendary. “Bucket of Blood — that was a place way out in the woods near the Terra Cotta neighborhood of Greensboro,” veteran blues and R&B band leader Roy Roberts recalls with a shudder. “People really poured in there. But I had to cut it loose. Man, if anybody got hurt there, nobody went to check it out until daylight.” That included the police.

Meanwhile, 130 miles away, Brad Thompson, coming of age in Lumberton, ventured to A Hole in the Wall to dance the night away. “It was a cinder-block building with a cement floor, sometimes with sawdust on the floor,” Thompson recalls. “And out in Proctorville, there was a place called Burnt Island. Anything could go on. It was an island unto itself; you weren’t bound by the land laws.”

Still, there were limits, often enforced by larger-than-life proprietors like Horace Chambers Rutherford, who founded Roseland Gardens around 1918 in Black Mountain. In a 2006 interview, his late granddaughter Katherine Debrow recalled Rutherford striding his hillside juke joint packing two .45-caliber revolvers “as a way of controlling riffraff.” Debrow also noted that Rutherford had been “good friends” with the longtime sheriff. For any entrepreneur seeking a prosperous career in juke joints, relations with local authorities were critical.

The trick was to allow customers to blow off steam without setting off alarm bells at Town Hall. “I’ve been told that the sheriff back then ran things his way,” amateur historian Don Talley says of Roseland Gardens’ likely arrangements with the law. “And if you ran things his way, you had no problems. I’m sure that he and Mr. Rutherford had an arrangement in which the sheriff said, ‘I don’t want to have to come out here.’ And Mr. Rutherford said, ‘You won’t have to.’ ”

Like many of its peers, Roseland Gardens featured live bands alongside its jukebox. Unlike most others, it broadened its scope to include a rather improbable audience — kids. Rutherford bought a used movie projector and offered matinees of Roy Rogers and The Phantom during evenings and on Saturday mornings. The projector now resides in the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center.

Roseland Gardens’ appeal also extended across racial lines. White neighbors were a common sight, according to Rutherford’s granddaughter. “They came to listen to the music,” Debrow said. “This was probably about the only place around that anybody could come and sit down in the afternoon and get a cold beer.”

But integration seems not to have been the norm. Dove Music supplied mostly clubs catering to Black audiences, while a white-owned operator serviced the rest. Raleigh’s Cabin By the Lake, on the city’s thickly wooded western edge, was a mostly white destination — until scandals and violence in 1957 led to fatal trouble for the infamous hot spot.

One of the biggest worries of juke joint owners wasn’t necessarily breaking the law — it was running afoul of the local sheriff. photograph by The News & Observer collection, courtesy of the state archives of north carolina

Dove strove to stay a swift step ahead of legal entanglements. “When a joint got busted, they’d padlock it,” his grandson says. “But everyone knew my granddaddy, so they’d give him a heads up and he’d call us to go get the jukebox before they padlocked it inside.”

Occasional busts notwithstanding, the juke joint business was jumpin’. By the mid-’60s, Dove’s jukebox coins and other incomes were bringing in $100,000 a year, according to his grandson — the equivalent to almost a million dollars today. Dove’s other enterprises included a Negro League baseball team called The Raleigh Tigers and a mortician’s license. “But he wasn’t burying anyone,” says his grandson. “He was using the coffins to run corn liquor.”

Of course, as with any party, the fizzle was inevitable.

Arthur Dove, who had been known for decades to friends and associates as “Old Man Dove,” died in 1983 at age 90. By then, juke joints were on their way out, too. Roseland Gardens hosted its last bash in 1976. “What young people think of as cool changed,” says Dr. Emily D. Edwards, a professor at UNC Greensboro and the author of Bars, Blues and Booze: Stories from the Drink House. “They still found entertainment— just not the way their parents and grandparents did. It wasn’t cool anymore to go to an old barn and dance and drink.”

The abandoned juke joints largely collapsed into disrepair. But time and changing tastes couldn’t extinguish the magic that many experienced in their heyday. Thomas Tipps, 60, has taken in many of America’s wonders during his decades as a tour bus driver, but few sights enchanted him like the juke joint known as Propst’s Place next door to his childhood home near Hickory.

On weekends, Propst’s Place underwent a transformation akin to Cinderella’s pumpkin.

By day, the red-brick, one-story building was a common general store. Come nightfall on weekends, the place underwent a transformation akin to Cinderella’s pumpkin: A back-roads glamour swept in on the summer breeze. Tipps’s mother, a minister, may not have approved, but her son was transfixed. “There’d be cars lined up on this little dirt road,” he remembers. “People came from miles around to meet and dance and buy wine and beer and other alcoholic beverages. Factory workers and women who cleaned homes or served food came dressed better than they were for church.

“I’d see the people come out to wipe off the sweat, and then head back in,” Tipps says. “Watching, I said, “One day, I’m gonna dance on that floor.’ ”

Tipps not only eventually danced there, but in 2021, he bought the building. By then, it was an overgrown ruin, the interior a riot of abandoned junk and decay. But the magic had not entirely drained away, and Tipps set about to restore the old joint as “a community time capsule.”

Inside, he’s created a museum of life at a country crossroads: an old church lectern and organ, black-and-white photos, and, naturally, a jukebox. All available for perusing to anyone interested by appointment — with no cover charge. “Everything in there honors the people who were here working hard and never getting their praise,” he says. But at the bygone juke joints, they had their share of thrills and spills.

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This story was published on Jun 27, 2023

Billy Warden

Billy Warden is a Raleigh-based writer, TV producer, and marketing executive as well as two-time TEDx speaker and longtime singer with the glam rock band The Floating Children. His work has been recognized with a Muse Creative Arts award, Telly awards, and a regional Emmy nomination.