Let’s learn a little about the mournful sounds of spirituals, work songs and field hollers that grew out of the agricultural world into what we commonly call the blues. Yazoo County is known for a particular style of the genre called the Bentonia School. This style of guitar playing and singing is often attributed to blues players from Bentonia, Mississippi, and features a shared repertoire of songs, guitar tunings and chord voicings with a distinctively minor tone not found in other styles of blues music.
While not all blues musicians from Bentonia played in this style, one particular musician, Skip James (1902-1969), had a distinct, complicated and highly sophisticated style that veered from typical blues guitar playing. His style became known as Bentonia School.
James became the most well-known of the small pool of musicians associated with the style. Others included Jack Owens and the unrecorded Henry Stuckey. Both James’ and Owens’ styles featured haunting minor chords and droning strings which, in comparison to the music of other blues musicians, rang with an ominous and eerie feel.
The Blue Front Café in Bentonia was home to musicians like James. It opened in 1948 under the ownership of Carey and Mary Holmes, an African American couple from Bentonia. One of the couple’s sons, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, took over the café in 1970 and continues to operate it as an informal, down-home blues venue that has gained international fame among blues enthusiasts.
In its early years, the café was a local gathering spot for crowds of workers from the Yazoo County cotton fields. The Holmes raised their ten children and three nephews and sent most of them to college on the income generated by the café and their cotton crops. The café offered hot meals, groceries, drinks, recreation, entertainment and even haircuts.
Music at the Blue Front was often impromptu and unannounced. The café seldom advertised or formally booked acts. In addition to Skip James, Jack Owens and Henry Stuckey, notables like Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 and James “Son” Thomas have played at the Blue Front. Current owner Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, his brother John, their uncle Percy Smith and cousin Otha Holmes have also performed at the venue. In fact, Jimmy recorded his 2006 and 2007 albums on-site.
Established in 1972, the Bentonia Blues Festival brings blues and gospel artists from around the region back to the birthplace of the Bentonia sound. In addition to musical entertainment, the annual festival features food, family contests and games, and arts and crafts. The festival is free to the public, and held annually in mid-June. For details about the festival and other Yazoo County attractions, visit www.visityazoo.org.