James “Hungry” Sellers first met Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry when he and his wife parked their motorcycle to take a few photos of Willie’s juke house, and Po’ Monkey himself stepped outside to meet them. It was around 2010 or 2011, and Hungry and his wife rode up from their house in Jackson to see her father, who was in a care home nearby. They were scoping out the area, as they planned to return for the annual Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival. Money was tight back then, so Hungry asked Willie if he knew of a place where they might camp when they came back for the festival. “Right there, you can camp right there,” said Willie, pointing at the fields surrounding his house.
“I go by Hungry. Don’t go askin’ why. You don’t wanna know. Got the name when I was 17, from bikers I was hangin’ with, outlaws at the time. Even my momma calls me Hungry.”
Hungry loved the blues since he was a little kid, growing up in Mound, Louisiana before his dad moved the family to Mississippi to take over a hog farm on the old Adams plantation (now Cal-Maine) in Edwards.
There was a store across the two-lane dirt road the Sellers family lived on, and when he was five or six years old, Hungry would cross the road to buy a bottle of soda pop. “Mountain Dew, it always was. I still drink it today.”
It was the mid-1960s, the time of Freedom Summer and race riots and the Voting Rights Act. But Hungry doesn’t remember much about those things, he was too young, being born in 1959.
One person he’ll never forget is the old black man who sat outside the store playing a steel guitar. “He always carried a bull whip with him, and he was real good with it, too.”
But it was the sound of that steel-bodied guitar and slide, the field, the dirt road that remain vivid in Hungry’s mind today, more than 50 years on.
“He laid it across his lap and played. And that man could sing! I’d just sit there with my little bottle of Mountain Dew and listen. Two or three people might gather round, but most people was workin’ all the time.”
But there was a downside to Hungry’s Mountain Dew Blues encounters. “I got a whoopin’ one time ‘cause I went over there when I wasn’t supposed to,” he adds, being drawn to the promise of a cold beverage and the rural music that went along with it.
Hungry’s parents gave him a segregated education during the 1960s. “My mom and dad sent me to an all-white private school. I quit in 6th grade. I didn’t get along with my dad, so I’d bale hay and feed the cows for the man across the road.”
But he remembers with great fondness the woman who helped his working mom manage household chores on weekends. Laundry, cooking cleaning, those sorts of things, while his dad was out in the field farming.
“Miss Emma, she was this big black woman, she’d come to our house every Saturday. Mom worked for the Sheriff’s Department, actually for the tax collector, they were the same department back in those days. I loved that woman,” Hungry says of Emma. “Chicken was her husband’s name, and he was big as a broom handle.”
Chicken still plowed with a mule, on the plot of land he and Emma owned outright. Hungry would hang out over at Chicken’s whenever he had the chance, and Chicken would coax him on. “Let me show you how to do this, boy,” he’d say of mule plowing. “Then he pulled a little bottle out of his pocket and had a little drink.”
Hungry’s love of the blues stayed with him for the next five decades—when he left home after dropping out of school, through driving truck, two marriages, and many moves including one that took him to live in South Dakota for a time.
Hungry recalls the first time he went to a Thursday open music night at Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold. “You had to get in early to get a place to sit. There were people there from all over, even Belgium, England, Canada. Doc Ventura was there, he plays music out of San Diego.”
What was it about Po’ Monkey’s that could lure local folks and people from around the world, to this sharecropper’s shanty in a farmer’s field in the middle of nowhere? Hungry likes to think it was the atmosphere, what Willie created among the people he welcomed into his home.
“He had an aura about him, it was relaxed. He’d go out of his way to make you feel comfortable.” And comfortable was what folks felt when they were in Willie’s place, Hungry affirms.
“You’d go there, and there’d be no color. No bigotry. Nobody bigger than anybody else. You’d see a millionaire from Paris, France dancing with a beautician from Cleveland, Mississippi. Everybody had a good time, no matter what their color. That’s rare around here.”
A quiet sort, Hungry usually avoided crowds. “I used to sit in the corner with my arms crossed. But being at Po’ Monkey’s taught me how to talk to people, how to approach people.”
There was so much going on at Po’ Monkey’s at the same time—the music, the people, the dancing, the clothes and costumes, Willie’s phallic shenanigans and costume changes, that it was hard to take it all in. But Hungry saw it all.
He remembers the group of ladies who had a social club at Po’ Monkey’s. They’d wear vests, come in, and set up every Thursday. Then there was another regular, a lady who wasn’t the least bit shy about ‘fessing up that “her husband was that banker who killed hisself for embezzling money from the bank. Boy, that lady knew how to have fun.”
Hungry took a lot of different people to Po’ Monkey’s over the years. No matter how he tried to describe the place, they had to see it to get it. “You just can’t explain it to nobody unless they were there.
Hungry remembers well the day in 2016 his coworker at the asphalt company he drove truck for asked him if he’d seen the news.
“Po’ Monkey died.”
Hungry went up to Merigold the night before the funeral. During the service he sat by Red Paden and amongst a crowd where, just like at Willie’s juke, there was no black or white. “Everybody’s on the same page.”
He remembers words delivered by the Hiter family, whose land Willie sharecropped since he was 13 or 14 years old. And how the preacher had never met Willie. And when the crowd let out a collective gasp as a little lady snatched a piece of paper, went up to the front and said, “I was Po’ Monkey’s wife.”
“They grabbed the lady and ushered her out the door. I bet Willie thought he’d get out of here without a fuss, but that lady caused a fuss.”
Today Hungry lives with his two dogs in a modest three-bedroom house on rural property in Jackson. His second wife died in 2017. Hungry never had any kids of his own, and he’s not close with his only sibling, a sister three years older than him. But he has plenty of friends, some bikers, some not.
Now 61, Hungry has some health issues. Breathing problems. Kidney dialysis. But he’s coping, and credits his friends for keeping him here instead of the hereafter.
“If it weren’t for my friends, I wouldn’t be here anymore.” One young couple lives about five miles away. They check on Hungry regularly, and bring him supper every day.
As he ponders the impression Po’ Monkey and his juke joint made on him over the years, Hungry recognizes he’s become more tolerant and less judgmental.
“I’m a lot more content. I’ve been a long-haired motorcycle rider all my life. But today I don’t judge like I used to. Just ‘cause somebody dresses like this or acts like that, I don’t know who they really are. I don’t know anybody, so I got to give them a chance.”
COPYRIGHT © 2020 DENISE LEISZ FOR DELTA DOWNLOAD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
I spoke with Hungry Sellers by phone at his home in Jackson, Mississippi on July 17, 2020. He said it was “hot enough to make the devil want an air conditioner. And humid, humid, humid.”