Vertis Hayes, Juke Joint

Vertis Hayes, Juke Joint, 1946, oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4 cm (The Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection of African American Art, Georgia Museum of Art), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Shawnya Harris, the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Georgia Museum of Art looking at a large painting by Vertis Hayes. This is called “Juke Joint,” and it was painted in 1946.

Dr. Shawnya Harris: [0:14] Interesting to see a Southern scene, probably somewhere outside of Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] It’s interesting to look at an easel painting because Vertis Hayes is probably best known for the murals that he produced in Memphis, but also that he produced in New York City as part of the WPA, most famously at Harlem Hospital. Let’s start with what a juke joint is.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] Essentially, a juke joint would have been almost like a bar or saloon noted for having great music and entertainment. It was a central part of many communities, particularly African-American communities.

[0:47] They could have come in any form, a small place in a rural area, in larger cities, they might have taken up a corner of a city block, and they became a central meeting place.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] This does seem like the central meeting place in this painting, but the building is isolated.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] The fact that it’s by itself is really interesting because, if you think of the time period, you would have seen larger cities like Memphis that would have had clusters of buildings, lots of people, lots of cars. Here you have this more isolated scene where the juke joint is the central building in the composition.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] The building almost feels alive. It’s curving. It seems to almost be stretching upward.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] You can feel the energy of what’s going on inside. You can faintly see the colors that seem like they’re bouncing on the window panes, but everything is directed toward the juke joint. If you look at the electrical pole across the street leaning in toward the juke joint building.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] There’s a gentle curve to the roof line of the juke joint, which is echoed in the wires of the pole and even in the clouds. This was a carefully composed image.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] There’s a house that’s down the road, and there’s an outhouse. They all have these curves. Everything is moving.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] That kind of organic quality makes this painting feel so human. It makes it feel approachable. This is a characteristic of a kind of painting that is known as social realism.

Dr. Harris: [2:10] Vertis Hayes was part of a larger community of artists that would have participated in this social realist vein in American art, showing social scenes of people active in their communities, even more mundane scenes, more genre scenes of various communities across the United States, particularly in the South, where there was a lot of interest in showing rural areas such as this.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] By genre scenes, we mean scenes of everyday life. Not a historically important event. Nobody of particular note, but just the things that people do every day. Here we see lots of people going about their everyday activities.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] You see everything from the people entering and exiting the juke joint to the tamale seller, the dog that’s seated on the border of the composition, the man in the overalls who’s a customer waiting for his tamale to be prepared, and then even the man in the green suit, who appears to be heading toward the juke joint.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] Then further up the hill we see a man in yellow pants standing right in front of this woman in white. Even further up the hill, we can just make out the silhouette of yet another figure.

Dr. Harris: [3:19] That figure is mirroring the curving electrical pole and the house and the roof line of the juke joint.

Dr. Zucker: [3:25] Then, the man with his foot up on the runner of a police car talking to two officers.

Dr. Harris: [3:30] We’re not sure about what that conversation might be about, if they know each other, or if there’s a problem. It’s interesting how the police car is functioning oppositionally to what’s going on on the left-hand side.

Dr. Zucker: [3:42] The one form that’s as powerful as the building is that road. It’s almost a mountain.

Dr. Harris: [3:47] You can see that the road is leading toward the viewer. Everything leans downward. You wonder if this will eventually be paved.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] You can see where the rain has run down that road has eroded that soil. It really expresses, for me, the economic neglect of a rural area. It’s a period when the United States has just lived through the Second World War, but it’s also a moment when the Great Depression is still a recent memory.

Dr. Harris: [4:10] We’re not really sure what time of day it might be. Probably getting close to nighttime because you can see that the artist emphasizes the bulb. That purplish tint, you wonder if there’s a storm that’s about to touch down.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] Also, just that everything in this painting seems to be in flux, to be moving, to be alive. There are no perfect right angles in that building. Everything in the sky seems to be changing. Even the road, a slower kind of change, the change of erosion.

[4:36] One of the things that I think is really interesting is the attention to signage, to the everyday things that somebody would see. We see the large beer sign, but then closer to us, we also see what would probably be an enameled sign advertising beer.

[4:51] We see Moe’s Cafe. Perhaps there’s a little blue sign that is alerting people that there’s a public telephone here. There’s all these wonderful details that capture our attention and make the scene feel really authentic.

[5:03] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Shawnya L. Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Vertis Hayes, Juke Joint," in Smarthistory, August 19, 2021, accessed July 13, 2024,