The gin was sold in Dixie Cups for 50 cents a hit. The jukebox was a Wurlitzer. Mr. Piccolo, a white man, would come by every other week to take the coins and change the records. "Mr. Big Stuff" was a favorite. So was Otis Redding's "Mr. Pitiful." When Willie Little shuts his eyes he can hear them still.
Willie Little's "Juke Joint" materializes a memory. Now on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building, it's a room-size installation made of love and squalor.
Little's Grocery was a shotgun shack. It sagged there at a Carolina crossroads where Sticks Road hits the highway in Pactolus Township, a couple hours east of Raleigh. The outside walls were weathered wood, covered here and there with rusting Royal Crown, Coke and 7-Up signs. The grimy inside walls had been battered, too -- by staggering drunks. The beer of choice was Schlitz. The razor blades were Pals. They cost a dime apiece. A screened box kept flies from the fresh loaves of Bost's bread. The cornmeal was Indian Head. The Wurlitzer was blue. Willie Little, 41, remembers every detail. It's where he grew up.
He remembers the Murray's cookies and the Butterfinger candy bars. And Uncle Charlie Little, who on the weekends sold gin till 3 a.m. but never missed the early service at Missionary Triumph Baptist Church. He remembers ostrich-shaped Miss Caraway, who always held a parasol no matter what the weather, and coughing Romie Dee, who had a growth big as a golf ball on his cheek. He also can remember giggling uncontrollably as Eshu and his lady love, a woman named Glory, went out into the back yard to make love against the wall. He remembers scraggly William Godley, who danced all by himself, and frisky Miss Odell, who'd start crying in mid-sentence for no reason that a little boy could begin to comprehend.
They're all there in his juke joint -- the razor blades, the candy bars, the Dixie Cups, the dancers. Though Little's Grocery had been in operation since the early 1950s, the installation on the Mall depicts it as it looked in the late '60s, during the sculptor's boyhood. The jukebox in the corner is playing neighbors' reminiscences, and records from that time.
The Butterfingers are real Butterfingers. The dancers are made of white department store mannequins much altered. Wiry black hairs sprout from the big swelling on Romie Dee's left cheek. Even in the act of love, Glory, with her skirt hiked up above her knees, wears big eyeglasses with rhinestone on their rims.
"Juke Joint" is like three-dimensional blues, but a grateful blues. All that drunkenness and poverty and rural desperation ought to be distressing, but Little's installation is so soaked in affection, music and celebration that he somehow makes it fun.
Included in his show are three sepia snapshots of the real Little's Grocery taken in 1958. The place already looks beaten-up. The walls are full of holes. The floor is sticky with spilled Schlitz. But the customers are natty. And smiling. They, too, are having fun.
Room-size installations full of scavenged props have been a staple of the art scene for more than 30 years. Finding beauty and distinction in the texture of the rural South has an even older heritage. What makes "Juke Joint" succeed is the authenticity of its cheerfulness.
You don't have to be from Pactolus Township to appreciate the warmth of "Juke Joint's" reminiscence. Who of us cannot recall, with pleasure and in detail, the hangouts of our childhood? James Joyce could. Throughout his years in exile he could close his eyes and walk the remembered streets of Dublin. Marcel Proust could. A taste of pastry was all it took to retrieve his childhood. Why not "Mr. Pitiful"? Why not a Butterfinger?
Establishments like Little's Grocery once were strewn across the rural South. They are much less common now. Since it closed in 1980, Willie Little has graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, won his share of fellowships and moved to Northern California. But he hasn't scorned his past. He honors and remembers it. One feels that in his art.
The Arts and Industries Building, on the Mall at 900 Jefferson Dr. SW, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For information call 202-357-2700. Admission is free. "Juke Joint" will remain on view through Nov. 30.