The tiny town of Bentonia, Mississippi (pronounced: “Caldonia”), population 441, is the site of one of the most important blues festivals ever to exist.
Unbelievably, it is still in operation, and it is the longest-running blues festival in the United States. The San Francisco Blues Festivalis laying claim to this honor, but I am personally calling out the authors of that Wiki page, who bestow this honor to the San Francisco Blues Festival, where the first of show is listed as being held sometime in 1973…literally, in their words, “sometime in late September” no dates specified other than 1973, and “sometime in late September.” (My thinking is that this would disqualify San Fran strictly out of principle. Who in the world claims ownership to a world record regarding time, when they don’t show any apparent regard for the concept of it or, more importantly, the accurate documentation of it? I’m giving this one to Bentonia.)
The Bentonia Blues Festival began in 1972, on a farm not far down the road from the town’s only juke joint, The Blue Front Cafe´. Both the juke joint and the farm were owned by the Holmes family, who are of AfricanAmerican descent. The family’s’ matriarch and patriarch, Carey and Mary Holmes, owned the farm and bought The Blue Front Cafe´in 1948, just one year after their son Jimmy “Duck” Holmes was born. Jimmy took over the establishment in 1970 after the death of his father.
The first Bentonia Blues Festival was a “… tiny event, with only one D.J. and Walter ‘Big Daddy’ Hood (‘500 lbs. of Blues’) performing a capella.” The event would be held on the Holmes family farm from that point on and for years to come. The location of the festival was moved into downtown Bentonia, Mississippi in 2006. In 2007, the Mississippi Blues Commission awarded one of its prestigious Mississippi Blues Trail Markers along the Mississippi Blues Trail to The Blue Front Cafe´one of, if not the, oldest continuously-running juke joint in the state of Mississippi.
The Blue Front Cafe´ is listed on the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association’s website as a main attraction on the Mississippi Blues Trail. The Blue Front Cafe´’s Blues Trail Marker reads, “The Blue Front Cafe´opened in 1948 under the ownership of Carey and Mary Holmes, an African American couple from Bentonia. In its heydey the Blue Front was famed for its buffalo fish, and moonshine whiskey. One of the couple’s sons, Jimmy Holmes, took over the cafe´ in 1970 and continued to operate it as an informal, downhome blues venue that gained International fame among blues enthusiasts.”
A promotional poster exists from the 1974 Second Annual Bentonia Blues Festival, on which the event is listed as the “Spring Festival.” The list of artists appearing on the poster consists of Son Thomas, Jack Owens, Parchman Rock Band, Love of Soul Band, and “many, many more.”
Even though the poster also boasts “Men and Women Parchman Soft Ball Teams, Men & Women Basket Ball Shooting Contest, Men & Women Soft Ball Throwing Contest, Tug of War, Log Wrestling, Motor Cycle Race, and Three Wheeler Race,” it sure does sound like a blues festival to me, rather than a “Spring Festival.” I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that the times were such in the rural Mississippi Delta that an event titled with any hint of a “blues festival” may have created for that event an unwarranted stigma that could result in failure for the event, or in extreme cases, the possibility for violence to erupt. So it was with a brave heart and a mind for business that Jimmy “Duck” Holmes began organizing the event in 1972-an event that would begin strong and become even stronger as the years went by. Due to a high level of interest from tourists from overseas in the 1980’s hungry for anything that could create for them an authentic, bluesy, juke joint experience-the event skyrocketed to the top in attendance of blues festivals in the States.
The Coca Cola signs that have graced the front and sides of the The Blue Front Cafe´ building for years are more than just antiques on display for the people of Bentonia to enjoy. Their existence and the story behind their being displayed so prominently is a part of the history of The Blue Front Cafe´ and its role in social issues of the town of Bentonia both before and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, when Jim Crow laws were finally abolished.
It seems that the Holmes’ family was subjected to a strict set of local laws during the era of segregation. The Blue Front Cafe´had a 10 p.m. curfew, as did the rest of the town, but at the pinnacle of cotton harvesting season, the establishment would sometimes be allowed to stay open 24 hours a day in order to serve the workers who had shifts that would sometimes last around the clock…on into the next day. The Blue Front Cafe´was not allowed to serve Coca-Cola because The Blue Front was considered a “black” establishment, and there was a Jim Crow law on the books stating that African Americans in Bentonia could not purchase Coca-Cola and other items deemed to be reserved for the “higher class” a.k.a., the white people. African Americans living in the Jim Crow South were subject to what now seems to us (and rightfully so) egregious and unjust local laws, such as the rule that black people were only allowed to purchase Nehi and Double Cola. This law was generally accepted by the whites, in spite of the fact that many white customers frequented the back door of The Blue Front Cafe´in order to buy bootleg corn liquor. The Blue Front Cafe´’s illustrious owner began his celebration of the abolition of Jim Crow by placing large and unmistakable but subliminal messages using Coca Cola signage that came to adorn the front and sides of the Blue Front Cafe´, post-integration. And, as you can see, the tradition remains to this day and will no doubt remain until there is (God forbid) no more Blues Front Cafe´:
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is not only a smart businessman and preservationist of the old-time way of “juking,” he is also a skilled musician and an aficionado of the Bentonian School–“a style of
guitar-playing [featuring] a shared repertoire of songs, guitar tunings and chordvoicings with a distinctly minor tonality not found in other styles of blues music.” Using only his guitar and his hauntingly beautiful and powerful voice paired with equally haunting and dark lyrics, Holmes emulates the style of the Bentonia School that he learned growing up two houses down from Henry and Jacob Stuckey, and hearing them play as a boy. Jimmy also learned the style from Jack Owens and harmonica player Bud Spires, who played live at The Blue Front when Jimmy’s parents owned the place, with Jimmy growing up in the juke joint never asking to learn from these men directly, but hearing every note and recording it in his own head, later practicing it on his own.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes from Bentonia, MS performing “All Night Long” at the 2012 MS Blues Marathon Expo in Jackson, Mississippi (01/06/12)
It Is What It Is, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ seventh album, is the embodiment of the vibe and ambiance of the Blue Front Cafe´. This landmark location has obviously imprinted itself upon Holmes, to the point that it seems as if he is not playing the songs, the songs seem to flow through him.
The album has been called by blues critics “the embodiment of raw country blues.” The label on the album may put it best:
“The record purposefully allows the cinderblock acoustics to be Jimmy’s accompaniment, compelling the listener to close their eyes and experience pulling up a chair in the old juke joint and listening to him play. Those same walls have absorbed the haunting music of Skip James, Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, Bud Spires, Cornelius Bright, Tommy West and others, and provide the perfect feedback to Jimmy’s stark and dissonant blues.”
Tonight at the place that inspired the album and also where it was recorded under Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ new label Blue Front Records, Jimmy will be throwing a FREE Record Release Party at the one and only Blue Front Cafe´to celebrate the release of this first self-produced work, It Is What It Is, which has garnered much critical and fan acclaim.
Jimmy has won Best Debut Album at the Living Blues Awards for Back to Bentonia (2006); Best Acoustic/Traditional Blues Album at the Living Blues Awards for Back to Bentonia (2006); and Acoustic Album of the Year at the Blues Music Awards for Done Got Tired of Tryin’ (2007).
The 44th Annual Bentonia Blues Festival will follow the Record Release Party on the next day, Saturday, June 18, at the Holmes family farm, 313 WilsonHolmes Road, Bentonia, Mississippi, 39040. There will be food for sale, arts & crafts, vendors, RV and tent camping (fees may apply), raffles with amazing prizes, and live music. This year’s lineup is flush with the amazing talent that makes up the large, diverse and venerated group that makes up the collection of modern-day Mississippi Blues men (or women) of today:
Bentonia Blues Festival 2016 Lineup
Sean Ardoin + Zydekool
Roosevelt Roberts Jr.
Bill Abel& Cadillac John Nolden
Leo “Bud” Welch
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes with Dave Hundreiser
19th Street Red
Brother Tito Deler
The Blues Doctors
See you there!
Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at email@example.com.