At the Blue Front Cafe:
BENTONIA, Miss. – Twenty miles northwest of Jackson, this town is marked only by the smallest sign. On a pole, a pitted green plate, white letters, arrow pointing: “Bentonia.”
We turn off highway 49 and over a narrow, pocked road, up and jolting over the railroad tracks into a hollowed out space of cracked pavement and gravel. To the right, The Blue Front Cafe, desolate, almost ramshackle – and radiant. Those who know of this old place or have heard of it may consider it a kind of living shrine, believed to be Mississippi’s oldest juke joint still in operation; this is ground zero, the epicenter of what musicians devotees the world over know as the Delta Blues, the Bentonia Sound.
The Blue Front is an old weather-beaten shack of a place, built longer ago than most can remember as a musician’s nest, home to the blues since it opened in 1948, and focal point for the annual Bentonia Blues Festival, an event begun in 1972 that now draws thousands of music lovers from over the globe to this town of 400 during the third week and weekend of June.
It is early in March. On a gray and dreary late morning, a thin man sits inside alone at a table, a pack of cigarettes at hand, a tall can of Michelob Ultra open at the ready. “You open?” we said.
“I’ve been opening these doors for 49 years,” the man leans back, a smile spreading wide as his outstretched arms. His voice is thick, a rich, smoked oyster baritone. “My place and always will be.”
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, icon, godfather of the Delta Blues, recording artist, musician, international celebrity, is by himself. His handshake is sincere, light, firm. The face is thin, lined, with dark, moist eyes alert and searching.
“Let me tell you right away before you ask,” he says. “People come here when it was too wet to get into the fields,” he said. “They’d hang here all day, making music. So many you couldn’t park out there. They could find themselves here, still can – I know, ‘cause we’re the only place left in the entire U-Nited States that plays the old traditional country blues.”
Nearly all his 69 years, “Duck” Holmes has been smothered in music; he is up from the land, a product of the cotton and soybean fields that surround Bentonia, of the wail of trains that roll down the tracks just west of the cafe, of the thick mists that mcome out of the river and hang over the dark land on quiet mornings. His mother Mary and father Carey were sharecroppers when they opened the Blue Front, raised ten children and four grandchildren, and gospel was mother’s music; almost every man young Jimmy knew owned and played a guitar, and the most talented of them gathered nightly for jam sessions at his parents’ juke jointconvenience store and always, always they played the blues; the music rises like a long mellow moan from somewhere deep, mournful and listless from everywhere and nowhere, from whatever is in the water, whatever is haunting the grounds at night, whatever gives passion and longing and love and sorrow, “from whatever is in my heart” – he pats his chest – “this is what lives in my music.” It can be hard core, folk blues, not for the weak-hearted.
The whine of weed eaters gnaws into the Café and Holmes, smiling, nods toward the open door and whispers, “Maybe that’s a little music.” The weed eaters are swung, like scythes, by sweatstained inmates walking the ditches in greenstriped pants, leg shackles barely visible; a sheriff’s deputy and a local police officer are nearby, watching.
Holmes has recorded a half-dozen albums since the death of his primary mentor, Jack Owens, in 1997, a way to keep the Delta Blues, Bentonia style, at the front. He toured last summer in South America, and at a blues festival in La Paz, Bolivia, and is scheduled to return to Europe some time after this year’s annual Festival, the 45th.
“Europe is behind us a hundred percent,” Holmes says. “What fans. Every day it seems someone from a country in Europe comes by, sometimes a bus load. Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, it’s all good. I love to go there, they love to come here,” he said.
Everything in The Blue Front Cafe, he said, “well, almost everything,” is original, the same, from 70 years ago when the place opened. The booths (not the tables; they’d been restored – once), the walls, the old bar (“We didn’t never call it a ‘bar’, we call them ‘counters’…”) and everything else is what it first was, but the paint. “Old wood, I slap on a little paint now and then,” he said.
Inside at one end, where the musicians gather, several guitars rest near a bench and a few amplifiers, the guitars Holmes’s, looking well-worn, ready. He has been told to “rest” but takes his thin tall frame toward the guitars, leans over one, pulls it up, strikes a chord – one chord – a strong, rich and open D minor:
She left early in the mornin’ she didn’t even tell me good-bye…
The pleading in that brief, haunting wail is from Holmes’s “Pencil and Paper”, working the pain and misfortune that ran through the hills and bottomland of Yazoo County, the Delta, its deep, intoxicating, hypnotic magnetism, the charm and seductive power of suffering, of the history in that Delta and all that it had held through the ages.
“I’m just telling stories,” he said. “The singing is background, the way they’re told. Bentoniastyle blues sits in a field – a Delta field -” he interrupts himself with a chuckle, “all by itself.”
Holmes has begun to prepare for the Bentonia Festival in a couple of months, five days at the Blue Front, the final weekend at his family farm, a large, sweeping meadow among the 60 acres he and his nieces and family still own a mile or so north of the Cafe; that’s where the big stage will go up, where the musicians will play and play, their passion lifting over the Delta.
Holmes is in charge as always, but we have a question: How does he manage any bad music during ‘open mike’ at the Bentonia festival? “I don’t judge musicians,” he said. “Regardless how bad you may sound, there’s gonna be somebody out there likes you. And if you’re really good, really really good, there’s going to be somebody out there thinks you stink. So I don’t judge. Never will.”