In Mississippi, small-town bluesman Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes retains growing old music alive
When the Blue Entrance opened in 1948, it was the primary African American-owned retail enterprise in Bentonia.
Bentonia, Miss: With callused arms, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes plucks an outdated acoustic guitar on the juke joint his mother and father began greater than 70 years in the past. He checks the café’s stock: jars of pickled eggs, beef jerky, pork hocks. He tends to the wood-burning range, created from an oil-field pipe. And each morning, he ultimately settles in on a stool behind the counter, ready — hoping — that somebody who desires to listen to him play will drop in.
Holmes, 73, is the final Bentonia bluesman, the service of a dying musical and oral storytelling custom born on this Mississippi city of lower than 500 folks. And now, he’s a Grammy-nominated artist, with a current nod within the Greatest Conventional Blues Album class for Cypress Grove, a document he hopes will assist protect the Bentonia blues lengthy after he’s gone.
The world has modified round Holmes and his Blue Entrance Café, the nation’s oldest surviving juke joint. Throughout the South, the venues — traditionally owned and frequented by African Individuals — have shuttered as house owners move away. Blues specialists consider Holmes is the one American working a juke joint owned by his mother and father.
It’s quiet exterior the Blue Entrance, a small constructing with cinder block partitions off a dusty rural Mississippi street. Throughout the road are the railroad tracks that run by means of Bentonia; subsequent door sits an outdated cotton gin.
It’s right here, on the Blue Entrance, that Holmes will watch the March 14 ceremony and be taught whether or not he received the Grammy. He can’t go in particular person due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that fits him simply nice. He’ll be surrounded by musicians from throughout Mississippi who wish to play with him.
“I’ll be right here on this gap within the wall day by day, for so long as I can, so that folks don’t overlook,” Holmes mentioned. “We’re attempting to verify it doesn’t die.”
When the Blue Entrance opened in 1948, it was the primary African American-owned retail enterprise in Bentonia, then a majority-Black farming neighborhood. Holmes was only a child. His mother and father, Carey and Mary, had been sharecroppers.
Mary ran the Blue Entrance in the course of the day whereas Holmes labored along with his father within the fields. By age 9, Holmes was working a tractor by himself.
The Holmeses’ enterprise was a neighborhood gathering place. Individuals got here to have their laundry pressed, get a haircut, or choose up salt, pepper and different nonperishables.
They usually got here for the blues. Musicians lined up exterior to play the Blue Entrance, with guitars strapped to their backs and harmonicas of their pockets.
Throughout cotton-picking season, the Blue Entrance was open 24 hours a day to accommodate farmworkers, who got here in for a scorching plate of Mary’s well-known buffalo fish. On weekends, folks stayed all night time consuming moonshine, dancing and taking part in music.
The city was by no means dwelling to greater than 600 residents, however its location on the Illinois Central Railway drew guests. Later, the one roadway from Memphis to Jackson handed straight by means of Bentonia, furthering its reputation.
Historians touring by means of Mississippi to doc blues musicians found Bentonia’s type. It’s described as haunting and eerie; its minor tonality isn’t discovered within the better-known blues types of Delta and hill nation.
Rising up, Holmes realized from his neighbor, “the daddy of the Bentonia blues.” Henry Stuckey, an growing old World Conflict I veteran, performed to entertain Holmes and his 13 siblings on their porch.
The type is handed from one musician to the subsequent — it might’t be realized utilizing sheet music.
“The old-timers I realized from couldn’t learn, they usually couldn’t learn sheet music,” Holmes mentioned — he doesn’t learn music, both. “They didn’t know what a rely was, didn’t find out about minors or sharps or open or closed tuning. They was simply taking part in. That they had no thought there was a musical language to what they had been doing.”
Dan Auerbach, producer of Cypress Grove and a member of the band the Black Keys, mentioned the great thing about Holmes’ music is the improvisation. Holmes by no means performs the identical music twice. Every efficiency is a snapshot in time.
“These songs, they’re like a dwelling organism, nearly. They’re altering every day,” he mentioned. “You’ll be able to really feel the realness and the immediacy of the music. It’s very idiosyncratic, and that’s what makes it so particular.
“Now, at the present time, it’s like every thing’s homogenised and we’re all on the identical server. Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes lives in a world that point forgot — it hasn’t modified.”
Right now, a four-lane freeway diverts site visitors away from Bentonia. Companies of Holmes’ youth have shuttered; buildings are torn down. Greater than 1 / 4 of residents stay beneath the poverty line.
The practice passes by means of city every day however doesn’t cease.
“Individuals my age was uninterested in going to the cotton fields,” Holmes mentioned. “As quickly as they acquired an opportunity, they acquired away from Bentonia, to Chicago, California, New York. There wasn’t nothing right here.”
Holmes by no means imagined leaving. He lives on the identical farm the place he was raised, a few mile from the Blue Entrance.
His presence has change into Bentonia’s greatest draw. Guests come from everywhere in the world and the music business to see him, to listen to the music, and to be taught the custom.
Earlier than the pandemic, Mississippi musicians carried out on the Blue Entrance each different Friday, typically extra, taking part in completely different blues types. In 1972, Holmes began an annual blues pageant, now the longest-running in Mississippi.
He holds Bentonia Blues workshops. And day by day that he sits behind the counter on the Blue Entrance, he’s keen to show anybody who walks in.
Some followers are stunned he’s so accessible, mentioned Robert Connely Farr, a Mississippi native who’s been visiting Holmes for years for guitar suggestions, all the best way from Vancouver. However for many who know Holmes, it makes good sense.
“His complete objective in life is to present that sound away, is to perpetuate or additional the Bentonia sound,” Farr mentioned. “I believe it’s essential to Jimmy, that his place is open and that it consistently has music. He desires there to be life in that constructing.”
Holmes has carried out in Europe, South America and throughout the US. He opened for the Black Keys within the nation’s capital in 2019. However he all the time comes again dwelling.
“I might hate if somebody took trip of their day to come back see me, and I wasn’t right here,” he mentioned. “I recognize it, that folks wish to journey from Asia and Europe as a result of they wish to know concerning the blues. I prefer to be right here once they come.”
Two massive portraits at his juke joint pay homage to his mentors, Stuckey and Jack Owens. Owens continued to show Holmes after Stuckey died in 1966.
“It was a blessed reward they gave to us,” Holmes mentioned. “They usually had been so beneficiant with it. What they gave us modified the world.”
Holmes laments that no younger folks in Bentonia wish to be taught. They are saying it’s too difficult. Individuals don’t recognize how the blues influenced fashionable music at present, how each style has roots courting again to it, Holmes mentioned.
However he retains spare guitars across the Blue Entrance, simply in case somebody desires to play.
“It is going to survive one way or the other,” Holmes mentioned one grey morning in his empty juke joint. “I realized sufficient that I used to be capable of carry it on, and possibly as soon as I’m gone, someone can be sitting round right here taking part in, somebody who picked up the issues that I used to be doing. I’ve to hope. I’ve to hope.”
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