Music

Inside the Revival of a Historic Mississippi Juke Joint That Once Hosted Ray Charles & Etta James

Events that prevented Rachel Dangermond from properly reopening 100 Men Hall, where Ray Charles, B.B. King and Etta James once performed, in the beach town of Bay St. Louis, Miss., over the past six years: Flood. Hurricane. Pandemic. Hurricane. Tornado.

“It is very much spit and glue,” Dangermond says. “Venues are hard.”

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Dangermond, a 65-year-old journalist, has spent that time turning the 400-capacity Black-history landmark in a one-story house with blue front steps into a community center. On the hall’s schedule this year: a Saturday-morning writers’ group; a drag brunch; “cigars under the stars”; a performance by bluesman Cedric Burnside; two battling harmonica players known as Harps On Fire; and a festival celebrating the late New Orleans pianist James Booker. Dangermond’s goal is to “keep this juke joint with its historic value open and continue to keep its sacred act of playing music.” She adds: “I’m no longer the owner. I’m more the facilitator of the story of this place.”

100 Men Hall didn’t start as a hall at all — it began in 1894 as an African-American co-op in which 12 founding members pledged to help each other pay medical and burial expenses. As it grew, the club evolved into the Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association (DBA), a community support group during Jim Crow and segregation, which, according to Scott Barretta, a University of Mississippi sociology instructor, “helped elevate people into the economy and provide them with social benefits and respectability, where otherwise they were being persecuted.”

In 1922, the DBA built the hall as a meeting space — a worn wooden pediment marked “100 MEN D.B.A.,” recreated based on the original, is at the top of the building — and it soon evolved into a venue for live events. At first, these were plays, wedding showers, Mardi Gras balls and drag shows. By the ’30s, the club became a stop on the Chitlin Circuit, a network of American clubs catering to Black audiences that helped make stars of acts from Billie Holiday to the Jackson 5. “It’s like going back into the past,” says James Keating, a retired physician who publishes the newsletter for the Hancock County Historical Society, of the hall. “It looks like a place that music is performed.”

In 2018, Dangermond was “in a mood” when she found herself in Bay St. Louis, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans and a sort of unofficial suburb with a population of roughly 10,000. She had just lost two promising job prospects, including one as a spokesperson for the New Orleans police chief, and was staying with a friend when someone texted her that 100 Men Hall was available for sale — for $389,000, according to Zillow — including an attached apartment that a previous owner had built. (The value of the property today is nearly $670,000.)

Skeptically, Dangermond and her adopted son, then 9, showed up in bathing suits (they’d been swimming) to the property. “It was just a whim,” Dangermond recalls. “I had this sort of divine clarity. I walked through the door. There was nothing on the walls. It was just a vibe.

“Next thing I know, I was closing.”

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Then came the unpleasant surprises. First was a notice that the State of Mississippi had revoked the club’s nonprofit status, and Dangermond had to sign a consent agreement to resurrect it and pay a fine. She had to wait out the bureaucratic process for nonprofit status because without itm the club could not sell liquor at public events. Until she could resolve the issue, she put on political fundraisers and other private events at the hall. This set the table for public concerts by Burnside, the northern Mississippi guitarist, drummer and grandson of the late blues hero R.L. Burnside. “We’re like, ‘Okay, this is going to be great!’ and we’re building, building, building,” Dangermond says. “We get to mid-year, and Hurricane Barry bore down on us. Before that, the rainstorm started flooding the neighborhood. I had an F-150 parked on the street and I looked out and the water was up to the window of the driver’s side. The musicians can’t get here.”

Dangermond and the hall “lost a lot of money,” she says, but they rebounded and booked acts to play every month of 2020 — until the pandemic shut down live music. Like many venues, the hall tinkered with outdoor, masked concerts, but then came Hurricane Zeta and a corresponding tornado that tore the roof off the building, causing $150,000 in damage. Dangermond had sold her New Orleans home to pay for the club, then depleted her savings for the opening, so she relied on insurance and donations to pay for repairs.

“It was like joy and pain,” she says.

Today, 100 Men Hall puts on events almost daily and breaks even. Blues is a staple and an almost automatic sellout, no matter who’s performing, even as the genre struggles to support clubs throughout the United States. Bay St. Louis locals stop Dangermond at the grocery store and regale her with tales of sneaking in as children to hear Sam Cooke perform. As a ninth grader in 1967, Maurice Singleton learned the swing-out dance from his sister and aired it out during a hall show by soul singer Roscoe Robinson. “It was the first time I went in any building that was dimly lit for a performance,” recalls Singleton, a 71-year-old writer and teacher who lives in town.

Burnside, who performed an outdoor event at the hall just after the tornado literally blew the roof off in 2020, set up his band under a large tree near the “tin house,” a separate structure containing a mural of Etta James, founding Hancock County NAACP president Albert Fairconnetue and others. “It makes me feel real juke-jointy. It was a certain energy about that building,” Burnside says, by phone from a tour stop in Athens, Ga. “It reminded me of a big house party. Everybody [comes] together and drink a little moonshine, have a little food and listen to great music.”

The hall closed in 1982 after the Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association finally broke up, and the building wound up in the hands of the Disabled Vets of America. In 2005, a couple ran it as an art gallery. Later, a musician and his wife reformed the DBA and scored a state grant to renovate the building, leading to the state historical marker in 2011. Dangermond still can’t articulate the quality of the 100 Men Hall that led her to buy the place. But, she says, “Musicians want to play here, and they hear those voices in the walls. They get up on the stage and they feel it.”

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