Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is Keeping the Bentonia Blues Alive
Heard the lone whistle blow
You know it blows just like it won’t blow no more.
I went down to the railroad station, you know I looked up on the schedule board
I didn’t see no train coming, I didn’t see no whistle blow
They tell me one train ran at midnight. They say one train ran just before day
I wonder, I wonder, which one carried my baby away
On a cool November afternoon, oak logs burn on the wood stove and the eyes on the electric stove glow red to warm the Blue Front Cafe, as Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the last living Bentonia bluesman, records his new album in his famous cinder block honky-tonk in Bentonia, Mississippi.
Holmes closes his eyes and sings about the evil all around his bed, chasing after another man’s woman, the woman that left him. The lines seem to come to him as he pinches chords on his guitar and stomps his brown leather shoes that are scuffed at the toes. Train whistles blow as engines pull box cars through town, people stop in to say hi, argue outside, or get their to-go box from the refrigerator. But. Holmes keeps singing and the tape keeps rolling.
“Blues music keeps lyrics alive,” says Holmes. “Each line is a rope pulling the next line. I just write down the title and the rest of the words are in my head because I am too lazy to write the words down. The way I sing the lyrics depends on if the audience wants to listen or if they want to boogie. I look at how the chairs are arranged at sound check, if they are in rows up to the stage, I know they just want to listen to me sing. If there is a dance floor, I know they want to boogie and I have to reach back in the bag and pull out something with a thump on it.”
Evil is all I know. Train goes by, keeps rolling
Evil, evil in the morning. Evil at night
Broke and hungry, dirty too, but I wonder if I clean up, can I go home with you?
If I can’t come in, just let me sit down in front of your door.
I’ll leave so early in the morning, I swear your man will never know
Bentonia blues is defined as dark and haunting blues played in minor key open tunings and sung in falsetto with often eerie, gloomy themes, images of the supernatural, and songs about the devil. The founder of the sound was Henry Stuckey (1897-1966) who learned the tunings from a Caribbean soldier during WW1. He taught the tuning to Skip James (1902-1969) and Jack Owens (1904 or 1906-1997), who made it famous. Owens passed it down to Holmes, who said Owens developed his own way of cross-note tuning a guitar.
The Blue Front Cafe, one of the oldest juke joints in Mississippi, was opened by Holmes’ parents, Carey and Mary Holmes, in 1948, across the street from the railroad tracks and next to the cotton gin. Money from buffalo fish, blues, moonshine, haircuts in the back room, and sharecropping helped raise ten children and three nephews and send most of them to college. The Blue Front Cafe was the place to go for workers in the Yazoo County cotton fields and for musicians passing through. Musicians also played at the Holmes’ family farm and Mary Holmes started the Bentonia Blues Festival in 1972. It still draws thousands of people to Bentonia on the third weekend of June.
Holmes was an educator for years before he started performing and recording. He released his first CD, Back to Bentonia, in 2006 followed by Done Got Tired of Tryin’ (one of National Public Radio’s “Top 10 Blues Albums” of the year), Gonna Get Old Someday and Ain’t It Lonesome. He is now releasing his music on his own label, Blue Front Records and the new album will be available in January.
Holmes has taken the Bentonia Blues from Po Monkey’s Juke Party in Merigold, MS to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, PA, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Palazzo Dei Principi di Coreggio with Spencer Bohren, and stages in France and Switzerland recreating the front of his Blue Moon Cafe. The Blue Front Cafe is on the Mississippi Blues Trail and people from around the world — including Japan, Germany, and Armenia — stop by to meet him and step into history. They leave behind messages on the front wall.
“I got rid of the pool table because I am too old for a barrel house and honky tonk any more,” Holmes says. “I make an oak fire and talk about the old times with anybody that stops by and I still get to make some records. To me recording is common, it is just what I do. I just didn’t know I would be doing it this long.”
Dos Oosterhuis/The Netherlands/“Nothing but the blues”
Fernando Toral/Argentina/21-5-2013/First Blues Trip