Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2016 May-Jun Contents 42 Rhythms
The first time I rolled into Bentonia, Mississippi, it
was in the middle of the night on a Friday – Friday
the 13th to be precise – and I had some Jack Owens
playing in my car. Something about that minor-tuned
guitar, Jack’s plaintive howling vocal, and the almost-
full moon peeking through the mist and trees... it was
enough to get my neck hairs tingling.
And hell, I was already nervous. I'd been invited to
come play The Blue Front Cafe by the last of Bentonia's
bluesmen, Mr Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes.
In a very non-traditional blues story, I'd met Duck
a few weeks before in Austin, Texas, at South by
Southwest (SXSW). He was playing a showcase for the
Mississippi Tourism Board and when I found out he was
coming to town, I contacted his record label and offered
to be his guide through what is quite the damned circus
here in Austin. By the end of his visit, Duck extended me
the invitation to come play the oldest juke joint left in
Mississippi – with him.
Now, Bentonia occupies a very unique place in
Mississippi blues. There just isn't anything about the
way folks play blues there that fits in with the rest of
Mississippi’s blues traditions. Except it's parentage I
suppose, because if the blues had a Mama and Papa,
they'd for damn sure be Hard Times and The Devil.
Folks seem to repeatedly describe the Bentonia school
as "haunting" or "eerie" or "ominous" and one reason for
that is because the guitar is in a minor tuning. Some say
the tunings are Open E Minor (E-B-E-G -B-E) or Open
D Minor (D-A-D-F-A-D), but the truth of the matter is
this – those men didn't have tuners, they were too poor
to own pianos, there was no band to keep in tune with,
so they tuned their guitars to where ever their voices felt
comfortable that DAY. Which brings us to reason number
two for Bentonia style's "spooky" label – the vocals are
sung in a high, wailing falsetto that when combined with
lyrics of love, loss, death, hard times and hunger, well,
they are truly haunting.
The most famous of the Bentonia school was Skip James.
He played and wrote songs not only on guitar but also
on piano, and was the first to bring the style out into the
world. But the man who stayed home and kept the style
alive was Jack Owens. He was a farmer and moonshiner
who ran a juke joint out of his house on the weekends for
his entire adult life. He passed away in 1997 at the age
of 92, but not before ensuring that the music would be
carried on by the next generation, and the man he chose
was Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes.
I reckon the question on your mind is why his nickname
is ‘Duck’? Well, he told me that when he was a little kid he
had a problem with one of his legs and it caused his walk
to resemble a waddle. He eventually grew out of the walk
but the name stuck.
Duck is one HELL of a player. He has managed to carve
himself out a very distinctive style that combines the
Bentonia vibe with some of the rawer Delta style as well
as some of the droney Kimbrough-ish elements of North
Mississippi hill country blues. And yet Duck doesn't
sound derivative of anything or anybody, he just sounds
like Duck Holmes.
He also doesn't seem to care that Muddy Waters invented
electricity, because his performances and recordings
are almost exclusively on acoustic guitar. Also, in my
opinion, he has the finest voice of any bluesman still
living in Mississippi, bar NONE. When he plays his own
music, his voice is rich, deep, resonant, and low. Kind
of a modern-day John Lee Hooker when it comes to
describing the expressiveness Duck is able to produce
vocally. It's incredible. Timeless.
I've been fortunate enough to play shows with Duck in
Mississippi and in Texas as his backing guitarist, and I
am here to tell you that that man can improvise. We've
done entire sets where the majority of the music is made
up on the spot, lyrics and all. The only thing that matters
when you play with him, is to borrow his guitar for a
minute before the show so you can tune yours to his. His
guitar is tuned to his voice, and yours better be tuned
to his voice as well or it's going to be a very, very long
night of wandering around the neighbourhood of C# or
D and wondering what the hell went wrong. Luckily, that
was a lesson I had already learned playing with Hosea
Hargrove and T-Model Ford.
Duck's own style aside, when he re-tunes his guitar to
play the old songs, there need be nobody else on stage.
As the old tunes start coming out of his fingers and his
voice goes up and his feet stomp the stage, well, it's as
close to a time machine I've ever experienced in music.
It's one of those rare moments these days when the crowd
quiets down, our eyes focus on the stage, and we're all
taken for a brief visit to that little blue and white cinder
block juke joint down in Mississippi on Highway 49.
That Friday the 13th we played for hours, just me and
Duck, with CW Ayon on drums. The concrete floor
reflected the sound, adding aural atmosphere and depth.
It was dim inside the juke, it was a little cool and humid
outside, and the car headlights from the gravel parking
lot shone through the barred windows and the open door
flashing light briefly on the last Bentonia Bluesman.
C.R . HUMPHREY
HARD TIMES AND THE DEVIL
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