At an Previous Juke Joint in Mississippi, the Blues Are Alive | Arts & Tradition

On a pale morning in Bentonia, Mississippi, a village of 400-odd souls, one of many few indicators of life are the half-dozen pickup vans parked or idling outdoors Planters Provide, the native feed and seed. The Blue Entrance Cafe sits at one finish of the road, subsequent to the rusted husk of a former cotton gin and throughout the railroad tracks from a string of long-shuttered storefronts and sagging rooflines.

The rumble and clanging of boxcars fills the café as I sit throughout from the proprietor, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, who at 73 is the final in a line of bluesmen from Bentonia. Holmes swings his left leg over his proper knee, revealing a scuffed, dusty black idler. He’s wearing black pants and a grey hooded sweatshirt. His grey hair sneaks out from beneath a black cap. Holmes’ mother and father opened the Blue Entrance in 1948 to serve sizzling meals to townspeople who labored on the cotton gin or on the encircling farms. By night time, there have been moonshine events and impromptu performances by native musicians, who performed a particular fashion of blues distinctive to the Blue Entrance and different juke joints within the hills between the Huge Black and Yazoo rivers. However the Blue Entrance, the place legends comparable to Nehemiah “Skip” James and Jack Owens performed within the Fifties and ’60s, was probably the most well-known, the Grand Ole Opry of the unique Bentonia sound. In the present day it’s considered the oldest surviving blues joint in Mississippi.

Although conscious of his place in historical past, Holmes can also be fast to reward fellow artists: “There’s a thousand blues musicians that’s simply nearly as good at what they do.”

(Timothy Ivy)

“You bought lots of used-to-bes—‘that constructing was this, that constructing was that,’” Holmes says. “That is the final juke standing that’s nonetheless in operation.” As a boy he helped out across the restaurant, which nonetheless serves sandwiches and hamburgers most Fridays and Saturdays. Alongside the way in which he discovered to play the Bentonia blues from its pioneers, and for a very long time it appeared doable the fashion wouldn’t survive him. Then got here the web, which made it doable for numerous folks to find, and surprise about, and even be taught, this music. “This place and what it represents attracts followers from throughout. The Blue Entrance and the music that goes together with it nonetheless exists.”

* * *

Spirituals, area hollers and African rhythms advanced into blues music over a few years throughout the American South, however the Dockery Plantation, at its peak a 40-square-mile tract in the midst of the Mississippi Delta, wouldn’t be a nasty alternative when you needed to give attention to one level of origin. It was right here, 90 miles north of Bentonia, {that a} handful of sharecroppers—Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, amongst them—pioneered the artwork type. Delta blues is broadly thought of the unique blues template, an acoustic nation blues distinguished by slide guitar, as popularized by Patton and Johnson. One other broadly acquainted fashion, Chicago blues, is an city, electrified model of the Delta blues, and it grew out of the Nice Migration, after Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others rode the Illinois Central railroad north out of Mississippi. Hill Nation blues is an upbeat, twanging pressure that grew out of the hills and hollers of northern Mississippi. Most songs that could possibly be referred to as the blues, regardless of the melancholy title, are set to the intense, cheery tones of major-key chords, they usually can convey any emotion or scenario the performer desires to precise.

railroad tracks
The Illinois Central Railroad, which ran by Bentonia, carried many blues pioneers north to Chicago.

(Timothy Ivy)

Abandoned cotton gin
An deserted cotton gin on Railroad Avenue in Bentonia serves as an occasional venue for stay music reveals produced by the Blue Entrance Cafe.

(Timothy Ivy)

Bentonia is a wierd, extra ominous idiom. Its unsettling sound hinges partly on a guitar participant’s spidery fingerpicking, which regularly requires the usage of all ten fingers. Maybe most necessary, the Bentonia fashion is performed in a minor-key tuning, making it sound tense and darkish, with repeating motifs and ringing open strings plucked with out a hand on the fretboard. The result’s a droning, hypnotic character. And in contrast to the comfortingly predictable 12-bar blues most individuals are accustomed to—consider “Hound Canine” by Elvis Presley or “The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King—Bentonia blues has a unfastened construction. There isn’t any refrain, no set variety of occasions to repeat a musical sample. The general impact is “spooky in a manner, however actually stunning,” says Dan Auerbach, frontman for the blues-rock group the Black Keys, whose Nashville-based recording label Simple Eye Sound produced Holmes’ 2019 album Cypress Grove, which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Dan Auerbach
Dan Auerbach performs together with his rock group the Black Keys. He additionally recorded Holmes’ Grammy-nominated album Cypress Grove.

(Scott Legato / Getty Photos)

Auerbach and Holmes
Holmes offers Auerbach some pointers.

(Alyssa Gafkjen)

Regardless of taking part in guitar for many years, and residing simply 30 miles south of Bentonia, in Jackson, Mississippi, I hadn’t heard a lot about Holmes till his 2016 album, It Is What It Is, confirmed up in my mailbox, courtesy of the report label. In Holmes, I discovered an uncompromised model of the blues, led solely by the artist’s imaginative and prescient. It’s a sound greatest heard on a dusty concrete flooring or a entrance porch, away from phases and lights. Music, in different phrases, not showbiz.

On the Blue Entrance, Holmes presides at live-music performances, some nights as the one performer, others as emcee for different performers. When Holmes sits on the microphone, his leathered, contemplative voice attracts out tales he could also be singing for the primary time. “I don’t write down lyrics, as a result of the blokes I discovered from, they didn’t write lyrics,” he instructed me. “They may say, ‘We’re gonna do that line once more, we’re gonna do that line once more, or let’s do that one once more’—that was it.”

Students of the blues hint the Bentonia fashion to Henry Stuckey, whose life is as mysterious because the music he innovated. He was born on the finish of the nineteenth century, and in accordance with an interview he gave in 1965, the 12 months earlier than he died, he tuned his guitar in accordance with the fashion of a gaggle of Black troopers from the Caribbean he met whereas serving with the U.S. Military in France through the First World Warfare. Like most blues musicians of his period, Stuckey was additionally a farm laborer, and he lived together with his household of six inside the south Delta or close by, in communities like Little Yazoo and Satartia. For a few years within the mid-Fifties, the Stuckeys lived on the Holmes household farm in Bentonia. “He would play to entertain me and my siblings and his youngsters on Friday and Saturday afternoons,” Holmes says. “I’d say that specific encounter was plantin’ the seed in me to start out taking part in the guitar.” Holmes is without doubt one of the solely folks nonetheless residing who knew Stuckey.

Henry Stuckey
Henry Stuckey, godfather of the Bentonia fashion, pictured within the Nineteen Thirties. “His guitar occurred to be the primary guitar I laid my fingers on,” Holmes says.

(Mozelle Stuckey Lawrence)

Stuckey by no means recorded music, however he handed his songs and taking part in fashion to a handful of others, together with Skip James, the best-known blues artist from Bentonia. The broader world first heard James’ fingerpicking fashion and excessive, lonesome falsetto on a collection of recordings for Paramount Information in 1931. James was paid $40—and have become so discouraged he stopped performing and lapsed into obscurity. However curiosity in these scratchy 78 rpm information grew, and 30 years later James appeared on the 1964 Newport Folks Pageant in entrance of 15,000 folks.

The efficiency was the speak of Newport, offering an unique, rural counterpoint to the electrified blues made fashionable by artists comparable to B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. James went on to report a number of periods that have been launched on the albums In the present day! and Satan Bought My Lady. After a 1966 session in Los Angeles, James instructed the producer, a UCLA grad pupil named David Evans, about one other Bentonia bluesman, Jack Owens, who had additionally discovered from Stuckey.

Jack Owens was “sort of a rustic model of Skip James,” says Evans, a musicologist now retired from the College of Memphis. “Skip’s taking part in was a bit extra refined or inventive; Jack was extra rough-and-ready and performed extra for dancers.” Holmes was a detailed pal of Owens’, and describes him as a moonshiner who buried his cash in bottles in his yard and original an deserted corncrib right into a juke the place he performed and offered his hooch. He couldn’t learn or write and didn’t know the names of the notes he performed, which contributed to his unorthodox fashion. Owens, in flip, noticed Holmes as a successor to the Bentonia custom.

Skip James
Maybe the best-known Bentonia bluesman was Skip James, seen right here throughout his sensational comeback efficiency on the 1964 Newport Folks Pageant.

(Property of David Gahr / Getty Photos)

Jack Owens
Jack Owens, a disciple of Stuckey’s, was a pal and mentor of Holmes. He performed the Blue Entrance repeatedly till his demise
in 1997.

(Robert Barclay)

When Holmes’ father died, in 1970, he took over the Blue Entrance, and he continued to prepare performances of native musicians. In 1972, Holmes and his mom based the Bentonia Blues Pageant to showcase them. In time, Owens began urging Holmes to get extra severe about guitar himself. “He would come day-after-day and say, ‘Boy, let’s play,’” Holmes remembers. “I believe now, from a divine perspective, he wished me to be taught it, however he didn’t know how you can train it,” Holmes says. Owens additionally inspired Holmes to be rigorously sincere in his personal music and lyrics. “Your lyrics should be true to what you have been singing about, whether or not it’s laborious occasions, good occasions, spouse completed left otherwise you received drunk, it needs to be true. And I might collect what he was sayin’. If you happen to’re not doing it in truth, it’s not gonna work out.” Owens continued to carry out on the Blue Entrance and at festivals till his demise in 1997.

For his half, Holmes didn’t report till age 59. A St. Louis-based label referred to as Broke and Hungry Information put out Holmes’ first two albums in 2006 and 2007 and an Oxford, Mississippi, label, Fats Possum, put out one other in 2008. Auerbach, of the Black Keys, introduced Holmes to Nashville, to report him in his studio in 2019.

Blue Front Cafe exterior
It was in 1948 that Holmes’ mother and father opened the café, now a monument to American roots music: the oldest, still-in-business juke joint in Mississippi.

(Timothy Ivy)

Guitars on wall at Blue Front Cafe
Guitars on show on the café. In the course of the years that Holmes’ mom, Mary, presided, the place was like Bentonia’s “front room,” Holmes says.

(Timothy Ivy)

Holmes has recently taken on the function of educator, lecturing about Bentonia blues to colleges and civic teams in Mississippi and elsewhere, and educating musicians. The pageant that he continues to provide in Bentonia every June has change into a weeklong showcase that includes touring blues artists, together with artists Holmes has taught: Robert Connely Farr, a Mississippi native who has absorbed the Bentonia fashion into his heavy, thunderous groove; Ryan Lee Crosby, who brings influences from Africa and India to the Bentonia sound; and Mike Munson, a Minnesota native who “performs like Jack [Owens],” Holmes has stated.

Holmes says Owens was extra involved with educating the Bentonia fashion to him than in essentially seeing it develop. “He by no means gave me the impression he wished me to be taught it to move on.” However Holmes, a pure trainer, is decided to see the custom proceed—and evolve. In recordings by Farr, for instance, who’s now primarily based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Bentonia requirements like “Cypress Grove” and “Catfish Blues” are menacing, guttural, speaker-rattling blues—far faraway from Holmes’ subdued, acoustic interpretations.

plywood sheet at Blue Front Cafe
The Blue Entrance has change into a pilgrimage website for blues students and music followers from throughout the globe. Some famous their go to on a plywood sheet.

(Timothy Ivy)

For Holmes, the blues permits and even celebrates change and welcomes the imprints of particular person artists. Farr remembers one thing Holmes as soon as instructed him: “You’re not gonna play it like me, you’re not gonna play it like Skip or Jack Owens. You gotta play it the way you’re gonna play it—that’s the blues.”

* * *

A few weeks after my first go to to the Blue Entrance Cafe, I drive up Freeway 49 once more from Jackson, this time with my guitar, ready to be taught among the secrets and techniques of the Bentonia fashion from the final bluesman who watched Stuckey play it. Inside, a fireplace within the wood-burning furnace has taken the chilliness out of the room. I set my guitar case down on the concrete flooring subsequent to a card desk and pull up a steel folding chair. Just a few Miller Lite empties from the night time earlier than sit on the desk, in entrance of vinyl information and CDs of Holmes’ music for buy and a big jar with “Suggestions” scrawled in felt-tip marker on a strip of duct tape. Over the doorway to the kitchen hangs a ghostly {photograph} of Stuckey cradling a guitar, wearing white pants and shirt and an identical fedora, standing alone in a area with a late-afternoon solar elongating the shadow behind him.

Holmes picks up his Epiphone acoustic guitar and I tune right down to him, one string at a time, a ritual he performs with everybody who sits in with him. He begins by exhibiting me how you can play “Silent Night time” in an open D-minor tuning—though, in reality, there’s little to determine it as the standard Christmas hymn other than the lyrics and a suggestion of the unique melody. He’s a affected person trainer however a tough man to impress. On the jam that turns into “Cypress Grove,” Holmes stops me and repositions my fingers as an inch-long ash dangles from the cigarette in his free hand. He knocks a rhythm on the physique of his guitar to assist me pull the licks of “All Night time Lengthy” into form, and reveals me a couple of of the licks and patterns which might be central to Bentonia blues. A number of occasions I notice, as we construct upon what seems like a brand new sample, that Holmes has taught me the basis riff of a recognizable Bentonia normal. Once I lastly latch onto the sluggish groove of “Catfish Blues,” Holmes affords encouragement. “There you go!” he shouts from behind the counter, the place he’s simply rung up a buyer. “You’re catchin’ on actual good.”

Jimmy Holmes
Holmes on the Blue Entrance. Bentonia blues is understood for its fingerpicking fashion and a minor-key tuning that Henry Stuckey stated he picked up from Caribbean guitarists in France.

(Timothy Ivy)

Blue Front Cafe interior
Within the early days, the Blue Entrance offered sizzling meals and butchered beef and produce from the Holmes’ farm. Weekends have been for music and moonshine.

(Timothy Ivy)

Working over the chord progressions throughout our lesson, I remembered one thing Holmes had instructed me. “For some motive, blues lyrics are labeled as laborious occasions—lonesome, poor, poverty,” he stated. “Blues lyrics are not all primarily based on laborious occasions.” He was echoing a lament I’ve heard from gamers comparable to Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a 22-year-old guitar prodigy from Clarksdale, Mississippi, about how blues isn’t fashionable with younger audiences as a result of it’s so linked to the previous and the horrors of slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow. However the longer I practiced, the extra I understood how the straightforward act of taking part in this music might present a respite from these burdensome legacies and may, for some, even really feel like an act of liberation.

“In the event that they was singing about one thing good or dangerous,” Holmes stated that day, “the extra they sing about it, the higher they really feel about it. And so they’ll maintain repeating the identical factor time and again, as a result of they rejoicing: ‘I’m so glad, so glad, my child’s comin’ house; so glad, so glad, I don’t should be alone.’ You comply with me?”

When the lesson involves a pure conclusion, after just a little greater than an hour, Holmes takes a seat at a café desk and unmutes a tv mounted above the entrance door. The sound of metal guitar strings is changed with the chatter of a cable information channel.

As I pack up my guitar and head for the door, the trainer stops me.

“If you gonna come again once more?”

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