The past two years have been hard on restaurants and bars everywhere, and they’ve left local institution Teddy’s Juke Joint hanging on by a thread.
“Last year—2020—has been the worst year since I’ve been in business,” owner Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson Jr. told 225 this past May, “and I don’t see why I’m still open.”
The Zachary bar and music venue is a decades-old pillar of the Louisiana music community and is known as one of the most venerated blues houses in the South. But it has been all but crippled by the pandemic. Even as vaccinations rise and many businesses are returning to a new normal, Johnson’s regular customers from the pre-pandemic days—mostly older folks, he says—don’t come out to the Juke Joint nearly as often as they used to. And nor do the bands; Johnson says he lost contact with scores of musicians over the course of the pandemic and that it’s become a serious challenge to get new talent into the Juke Joint.
But one thing has begun to change. People are taking notice of the dire straits in which Teddy’s has teetered for over a year, and they want to help.
Dixie Taylor, a singer-songwriter who performs under the name Dixie Rose and who has led the Wednesday night jam sessions at the Juke Joint for the past 16 years, recently organized The Teddy Festival in mid-June to raise money to save the venue.
More than 20 bands agreed to perform at the festival pro-bono. And Taylor says she made her intentions clear to everyone she contacted: This is to help Teddy’s, and there is no money in it for the bands.
“Over and over, and over and over again, I kept hearing the same thing,” she says. “Absolutely yes; anything I can do to help Teddy and (his wife) Nancy.”
In the end, Taylor and Johnson both say the festival was a success. In addition to the many musicians who offered their services free of charge, droves of people who had never even been to the Juke Joint came out to contribute to the effort to save Teddy’s.
But it would seem the festival was more of a momentary respite from the Juke Joint’s financial battles than a solution to them. Johnson says all the money it brought in quickly disappeared after he caught up on his bills and replaced the merchandise sold.
“(The money) was gone before I even made it,” he says.
The road ahead is rocky and cloaked in uncertainty. Johnson is trying to run the venue on a normal schedule every night. Mostly, though, he sees the Juke Joint’s longterm fate as out of his hands. He can’t force his customers to come out more often or to spend more when they do. He can’t force people to like the blues, and he has no intention of editing or updating the venue in hopes of attracting new faces.
“The place is what it is. It’s established,” he says. “There ain’t nothing that I want to change about it.”
Johnson knows the odds are mounting against him and says he may one day have to close the Juke Joint, at which point he says he’d likely convert it to a private event hall.
If that were to happen, the community risks losing one of the last true juke joints in the country, with a rich history and down-home mystique that have attracted the likes of visiting celebrities such as Ethan Hawke and media attention from publications like The New York Times, not to mention the laundry list of renowned musicians from around the world who have found a second home on its stage.
Johnson thinks it will take more than media coverage or events to properly resuscitate his venue. It will take a rekindling of appreciation for no-frills, down-to-earth musical and cultural communion—the kind that can only be accessed in places like this ramshackle little blues house just off Old Scenic Highway.
For those who want to help save the storied venue, attendance is the most powerful tool. Be it an impromptu jam session, a performance from resident musicians like Dixie Rose or Doug Brousseau and the River City Allstars, or Johnson’s “Legendary Record Spins,” there are one-of-a-kind experiences to be had at Teddy’s nearly every night.
Check the calendar, pick a night, and see the place for yourself—while the music is still going.