There’s only one living Mississippi-based bluesman that learned the ‘Bentonia-style’ of playing straight from the hands of one of the masters.
There’s only one living Mississippi-based bluesman that owns and operates the longest-running legal juke joint in the Magnolia State.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the one-and-only Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, a bluesman who is all of the above.
The 67-year-old Holmes is a throwback to the days when solo, finger-picked acoustic blues player ruled the scene, long before drums, amps, electric guitars and enormous volume became standard issue for the genre.
“People have this thing about blues bands these days. They want a keyboard player, percussion, bass and then rhythm and lead guitars. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But all that was built off what I do; all the band stuff was built off what solo blues artists do – which is telling a story and playing the guitar,” said Holmes. “I’ll be the first to say that the music that I do is not stuff to dance to. It’s stuff where you listen to a guy tell his story with an instrument behind it. Some of the stuff I do I modify to where you can get up and kind of shake your butt to, but the guys that I learned from didn’t play music to entertain you. They played music to tell a story based on something they had experienced in life.”
Lately, Holmes has broken away just a bit from his usual solo act to team up with the pride of Pontotoc, Mississippi – blues harp blower supreme, Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean. Holmes and Bean took time out of their respective busy schedules to record the excellent (and appropriately-titled) Twice as Hard (Broke and Hungry Records).
“There’s been quite a demand for it (Twice as Hard). It’s really caught on like wildfire. My personal thought about it is, that type of music – especially with two people – is almost non-existent,” Holmes said. “Back in the hey-day of the blues, there was a lot of that where you’d have a country blues guitar player and a country harmonica player. But these days, that’s not the case.”
The Holmes/Bean combo is like a Delta shout-out to the glory days of acoustic guitar/ harp duos like Sonny and Brownie and Cephas and Wiggins – and the pairing just happened by chance.
“Terry and I were booked to play the same festival (in Switzerland) – but as separate acts – and we ended up doing a couple of songs together and then all of a sudden, there was a demand for an ole’ country blues player and a harmonica player to play together again,” Holmes said. “And that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of blues guitar players and harmonica players out there … but if there are any out there doing the old cotton field blues like we do, I sure don’t know about them. It’s almost a lost art.”
Another thing that could almost be considered a lost art in 2014 is one’s ability to operate a successful small business. But now into its seventh decade as a staple and hub of the Bentonia community, the Blue Front Café most definitely qualifies as a successful small business (a beautiful shot of the Blue Front adorns the cover of Holmes’ third CD – Gonna Get Old Someday (Fat Possum Records).
“Everybody tells me I sell my merchandise too cheap. I don’t sell a big variety of stuff … I sell beer, soda, chips, some CDs and T-shirts … and I try my best to stay just above my cost. I don’t try and turn a huge profit,” he said. “I mean, you have to make some money, but I wouldn’t want the prices on any of my stuff to be a deterrent to people coming by and buying things. I never want someone to say, ‘I can’t go to the Blue Front because it’s too expensive.’ And it’ still there … it’s managed to weather the storm.”
The oldest business in Bentonia – holding elder statesman status over both the post office and the bank – the Blue Front and the Holmes family was honored with a Mississippi Blues Trail marker just outside the café in 2007.
“I really had no idea how old it was, but the state said it’s the oldest legally-registered juke joint in the state of Mississippi. What makes it really unique is that it’s never been closed. I’ve been running it 44 years and my parents ran it for 28 years before that and it’s never been closed, even after the cotton mill and the lumber yard – industries that supported the Blue Front – went out of business. And even after the (new) highway by-passed the town,” Holmes said. “At one time, the Blue Front was your living room away from home. When it was really, really thriving, people didn’t consider going to the Blue Front as going out. They would come and spend a couple hours there, but they were making preparations to go to one of the big clubs after that. All the locals would come and drink beer and shoot pool for awhile, but they had in their minds where they were going to cap the rest of the evening and night at after they left the Blue Front. Since it was a small community, everyone would look out for each other, because everyone knew everyone. If the Blue Front could talk … boy, could it tell some stories.”
There just aren’t a whole lot of establishments like the Blue Front that are still up and running in Mississippi anymore. Almost as a parallel, there aren’t a whole lot of bluesmen playing the kind of acoustic country blues that Holmes is playing, either. The Bentonia-style of blues first came of prominence back when Skip James was its leading proponent. Its haunting and ethereal sounds quickly set it apart from the rest of the blues-playing pack and Holmes is carrying on that tradition today.
“I don’t read music and I don’t use those little electronic tuners, because when you do that, I feel like you’re doing something that … something that the older guys that I learned from didn’t do. Most of those guys couldn’t read and write, so if you put a tuner in front of them, they wouldn’t know what they were looking at anyway. If you told them to play an A chord, or a C chord or a flat or open, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Even though they could play all that stuff, they were not aware – music-wise – of what they were doing. I play in what they call the Bentonia style. And what makes that style stand out is the way the guys played the G string, and those guys weren’t aware of that,” he said. “Those guys played in a tuning they called cross-note. Now music-wise, there’s no tuning that’s called cross-note. The musical professionals still can’t pinpoint that. They say it’s either tuned open E, E minor or open D. But the old guys called it cross-note. The guy I learned from, if you told him to tune his guitar to open tuning, he had no idea what you were talking about, even though he played in that particular tuning. He just wasn’t aware of that.”
The guy that Holmes learned from was the incomparable Jack Owens, a peer of Skip James.
“As Jack started getting older, and after his wife had passed, he had a little more time and he started coming to the Blue Front and spending some time there. I think it was divine purpose, because it got to where he would come every day with his guitar. I’d be sitting there on the front porch with not a whole lot going on and Jack would come by and say, ‘Let’s play some,’” said Holmes. “I could mess around and play a little at that time, but he had this style of music that was unique to the world and he was the only one left, because Henry Stuckey had passed and Skip James had passed, so Jack was the only one still doing the Bentonia-style of blues.”
He may not have said it in so many words, but after they began to sit on the front porch of the Blue Front and pick, it was clear that Owens wanted to pass on the Bentonia style to Holmes, insuring that the age-old form of blues would be anything but forgotten.
“I really wasn’t aware of it until he passed (in 1997, at age 92), but it was almost like divine intervention, like something was telling him that he had to leave it with somebody, so it would carry on,” said Holmes. “He would come daily and say, ‘Let’s pick them guitars.’ So I got mine and he would have his. Then he’d come the next day and he’d say, ‘Boy, can you play “Cherry Ball” yet? Can you play “Hard Times?’ And I’d say, ‘Jack, I just don’t know, man. I just can’t get it.’”
In the early going, try as he might, Owens just could not seem to get Holmes – who was ready and more than eager to grasp what he was being shown – to catch on to the intricacies of the hand-picked, Bentonia-style of blues.
“It really did hurt him that I couldn’t catch on. But he’d still come back the next day, anyway. Now this man could not read or write, but what he finally told me was, ‘Boy, I want to watch my hands. Look at my hands real good and watch every move my fingers make. Forget about the songs, just sit here and watch me,’” Holmes said. “It bothered him that he couldn’t teach me. He could show me, but he couldn’t tell me which note to play or anything like that. So I started watching him and that’s how I learned. He was so determined and fortunately, I picked up all the basics.”
Even though Holmes is more than willing to be the torch-bearer for the Bentonia blues, he wants to make sure that the originators of that style of music are never forgotten.
“Well, I sure don’t try and duplicate him (Owens), because I don’t want to take nothing away from what he did. I never want to overshadow him,” said Holmes. “I play in that tuning and that style, but I will never try to overshadow him, man. I always want it to be about Jack Owens and Henry Stuckey and Skip James.”
As proud as he is of the fact that he was able to learn from the hands of Jack Owens, Holmes never thought for one second that he would use that knowledge to do anything other than just sit on the front porch of the Blue Front and pick the blues. Traveling the world and playing music all over the globe was not something he could have ever imagined when he first started playing the instrument.
“I feel like I was kind of drafted into it. After I started traveling is when I realized that if I don’t get out and play this music, how will anyone else learn it? I’ve got to take it out there and hopefully someone will pick it up,” he said. “I really hope that someone else will be able to pick up this style of music and play it so it continues to stay alive. I feel like the baton has been handed to me and now I have to get it to the next person. Who that next person is, I don’t know.”
It’s unlikely that the founding fathers of that type of blues were ever intent on crafting a new, or different, form of music. Instead, they were probably just doing what came natural to them – picking up a guitar and telling a story behind their picking. What came out is just what came out.
“You’ve got guys – both young and old – that are a heck of a musician. They can read music left and right, up and down, but unless you can combine your music literacy, or your music knowledge, with what’s in your heart, it ain’t gonna work,” Holmes said. “I mean, even if you can read sheet music, if you can’t combine that with how you feel in your heart, it ain’t gonna happen.”
The one thing that has always seemed to put the blues in a special category from any other form of popular music is in the way that a performer can impart his feelings – good or bad – to his audience. The music turns from a series of notes into a palpable, living emotion as it passes from the bandstand to the front row. The way Holmes sees it, that feeling doesn’t always have to be one of ‘woe is me.’
“True blues – not talking about R&B, but talking about the cotton patch blues – you play what you feel. If you feel sad, you play sad. If you feel happy, you play happy. That’s the true blues,” Holmes said. “There’s kind of always been a myth about the blues only being about hard times and sad stories. That’s not true. Blues can be about anything; if you went out last night and met this new girl, or if you and your baby are getting along and having a good time … that’s the blues, too. Blues can be happy. Blues is just a feeling, good or bad, happy or sad.”
And just how did he get the nickname ‘Duck’?
“Well, my leg was deformed (at birth), so I was like this (waddles back and forth like a duck). But my mother says I grew out of it,” he said. “Nowadays, they put some kids in (leg) braces to help with that, or they even break their leg and then will re-set it. But my mother said she just prayed and prayed and prayed that my leg would straighten out and it did … but the name stayed.”
Photo by Nate Kieser, Terry Mullins.
Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes Interview by Terry Mullins