Before Cream recorded “I’m So Glad” in 1966, few music fans knew about the sound that emanated from the area around the rural Delta town of Bentonia, Mississippi—an elegantly cadenced, droning, minor-key blues style, mostly sung in keening falsetto, and full of songs about the Devil and hard life gone harder. But those who attended the 1964 Newport Folk Festival saw the re-emergence of its main torchbearer, Skip James, after a roughly 30-year hiatus from recording and performing. James’ Newport appearance was the perfect comeback for this mysterious-sounding variant on Delta blues. As he took the stage, it was shrouded in fog, and just as he struck the first notes of his song “Devil Got My Woman,” his voice keening in falsetto over his open-D-minor-tuned 6-string, the fog parted, and both James and the music of Bentonia were revealed once again.
Okay, maybe that’s a little florid, but the Bentonia style does have a dark romance wrapped into its sound and lore. And despite the efforts of Clapton, Bruce, and Baker, it has remained rarified—hardly heard outside of its homeland or the rooms of blues obsessives. Since 1931, when James recorded his sides for Paramount Records, there have been only four other notable practitioners: James’ mentor Henry Stuckey, who never recorded; Jack Owens and Bud Spires, who cut one album as a duo; and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
Holmes, at age 69, is the last man standing. He’s not as fleet or skilled a player as James, but his voice sounds every bit as old and sunbaked as the cotton fields where his parents sharecropped before opening the Blue Front Café in 1948. And he uses the same open E-minor and open D-minor tunings that have always characterized the Bentonia sound.
Today, Holmes still runs the Blue Front, and that’s where his fifth and newest album, the recently released It Is What It Is, was recorded. “Other than the town not having as many people, the Blue Front is still just like it was on day one,” Holmes says. “I used to have a pool table and even a couple video games, but I got rid of the pool table in the late ’90s. When it got to the point where the pool table crowd was crowding out the regular people just socializing, I took it out.
The life of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and the history of the Blue Front Café are intertwined. Here, Holmes talks about both and provides the soundtrack for his narrative with his bawling, soulful voice and Epiphone Masterbilt EF 500RA guitar.
“I never had a problem with fights and people carrying on,” he continues. “I put the first pay phone [in town] in there. It was right by the bar. When I took it over in 1970, I had a strict policy and everyone knew that I didn’t mess around. If people get rowdy or start a fight, everyone knows I’ll drop a dime on them. It took about six months for everyone to realize and after that it’s been smooth sailing.”
That’s 46 years of serene navigation, but it wasn’t until 2006, when Holmes cut his debut album Back to Bentonia, that his career as a musician caught a broader wind and he became a regular at festivals in the U.S. and Europe. It Is What It Is is state of the Duck—nine tracks that draw on his life and times in rural Mississippi, as well as the haunting sound of the blues that has long echoed across the flatlands of his hometown. They include “It Had to Be the Devil,” long a staple of the Bentonia blues songbook, and the practical philosophy of the title track, as well as the reflective “It Is What It Was.” Holmes pairs droning chords plucked out on his Epiphone Masterbilt acoustic, or an electric guitar that sounds plugged into a ’50s car radio, with his lonesome, bawling-calf voice—a marvelous, elemental bray. For him, like any true juke joint rambler, tuning, tone, and precision aren’t as important as to-the-bone-honesty and vibe. And It Is What It Is is packed with both. Especially vibe. Listening to the album is as close as you can get to an authentic, old-school juke joint today without exploring the nearly forgotten corners of the deep South.
And even those corners have changed. Reminiscing about his native town, Holmes says, “It used to be that most of the black people in the community worked as farm laborers or did something on the farm. Now, hardly anyone works on the land farming. Machines do all the work now. There’s not 10 black people working in the field. And there were a lot more people who played music, including the blues. People didn’t look at it back then like they look at it now. For an individual to play a guitar back then was something common. But to know someone who plays blues music now, it raises eyebrows. Back then you had several blues guitar players, harmonica players, stuff like that, here. They all weren’t on the same level, but they were in the community playing.”
Holmes seriously committed to guitar in the late ’70s, when Jack Owens took him under wing. Like Skip James, Owens had learned to play the Bentonia blues style from Henry Stuckey. “I’d always had an ambition to learn to play the guitar,” says Holmes. “Not necessarily blues guitar. I was sort of drafted into it. Jack really wanted me to learn how to play the Bentonia style of blues he learned from Stuckey.”
One reason the Bentonia style is relatively obscure is that its main practitioners never cared to travel, as Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and other Delta blues proponents did. The Bentonians had farm jobs and families that kept them tied to their homes. And James, who auditioned for Paramount in Jackson, Mississippi, and recorded his historic sides for the label in Grafton, Wisconsin, gave up the music business after his 78s tanked during the onset of the Great Depression. Until his comeback, he split his time between farming, serving as choir director of a local church, and the ministry.
As for the unrecorded Stuckey, who seems to be the linchpin of the Bentonia style, Holmes explains that he “was a devoted family man. He had a big family and wasn’t going to leave to go play the guitar on the weekends until he was sure his family had what they needed, their groceries were made, and they were okay. Then he’d go play guitar and make some money and be back and ready to work on Monday. He was a farmer. He sharecropped with my dad. He wasn’t real tall, but he was a big man, like a boxer. Big boned. Big muscles in his arms and shoulders. He kind of strutted when he walked. By looking at him, you’d think he would have had a deep voice, but when you heard him talk you’d think it was a different person. That’s why he could sing up there like Skip and Jack did.”
Skip James’ take on Bentonia blues is definitive. Here, he performs in the “blues house” at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival for an audience that includes Howlin’ Wolf (at right) and Mississippi John Hurt (behind James). He’s playing one of his signature songs, “Devil Got My Woman.” His highly original, keening vocal approach and his intricate picking are on display.
Holmes began to tinker with the guitar in the early ’60s, on Stuckey’s old instrument—“just hitting the strings, just making a sound. Then for Christmas my daddy bought me a little yellow-and-black plastic guitar. That was my first guitar that I owned for myself. I broke the first set of strings on it and never did get any new strings, so it kind of got pushed to the side.
“Then in 1963, I visited my uncle in New York and he had a guitar. It was electric and that kind of rekindled the fire a little bit. I messed around with the guitar again when I visited the next couple summers. But then after that, I really didn’t mess with it until around 1972.”
At that point, Holmes was more under the sway of Tommy West, a bluesman from the Mississippi hill country above Batesville and Oxford. The hill country is home to yet another distinctive regional style, based on one-chord drones, band arrangements that pass combined rhythm-and-melody lines from instrument to instrument, and intense rhythmic drive—even in its guitar solos.The most famous, modern-day proponents of Mississippi's hill country sound are the late R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, who followed in the footsteps of Fred McDowell.