Bentonia, Mississippi is a small town of just over 400 residents, about the same number it had in 1931.
That year, the town’s most famous son went north to record for the Paramount Record Company. The railroad Nehemiah “Skip” James left on still runs through Bentonia, but the station is long gone. Still, not far from the tracks, a cinderblock building stands, representing the town’s lasting contributions to music and culture. That building is the Blue Front Café, the oldest juke joint in Mississippi, and its proprietor is Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the last of the Bentonia bluesmen.
The past few years have been kind to the Bentonia blues,
a tradition of minor-key and lonesome songs with lyrics about death and the devil and lost souls drifting from door to door. In October 2019, Holmes put out his critically-acclaimed eleventh album, Cypress Grove, in collaboration with producer and guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. In January 2020, Skip James’s recording of Bentonia blues classic “Devil Got My Woman” was added to the Grammy Hall Of Fame. And in November of the same year, Cypress Grove was nominated for a Grammy Award. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grammy Awards ceremony has been pushed back to mid-March. At the time of publication, it is unknown whether this will be Holmes’s year to take home the award for Best Traditional Blues Album. Since the Bentonia sound is having a moment in the spotlight, Cypress Grove just might be the right album at the right time.
Why is the Bentonia sound more popular now than it’s ever been?
Bill Steber is a photographer, musician, and blues enthusiast who has documented blues culture in Bentonia, Mississippi for more than twenty years, and he has an idea. “Looking at it now, I think that [James’s] popularity has a little something to do with the rise of vinyl and film in the millennial generation: in other words, a sense of tangible authenticity.” The same longing for real, uncontrived experience is behind the popularity of Holmes and his new album. “People are hungry for the authentic. The fact that Jimmy is from that area and he grew up within that,absorbed all that, and plays that kind of music, the level of authenticity is so much greater.”
Steber also credits early-2000s films like Ghost World and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
These films, which featured Skip James songs in their soundtracks, were the general public’s first real introduction to the Bentonia blues. And unlike many listeners during the early blues era of the 1930s, or even the blues revival of the 1960s, a 21st century audience was ready to welcome the Bentonia sound with open arms. “There’s something so mysterious and ethereal and strange and haunting and authentic,” Steber says, “It’s always been there, but I think people are more receptive to it now.”
Still, Steber cautions against thinking of the “Bentonia blues” as a rigidly defined subgenre.
“Everything is easy to see the differences in, until you start looking deeper. It’s a lot like genetics and race. There aren’t obvious differences when you get down to the DNA. It’s kind of the same way with all of the Mississippi genres.” Beyond surface-level differences like rhythms and chord changes, many blues standards cross geographic and subgenre boundaries. For example, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’s Cypress Grove includes his adaptation of “Little Red Rooster”. While a song previously performed by artists like Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones isn’t inherently part of the Bentonia tradition in the same way “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is, Holmes’s dark, moody performance incorporates aspects of the Bentonia style.
In addition, many of the blues musicians Steber met on his travels to Bentonia didn’t play what outsiders think of as the “Bentonia style”.
“How many recorded practitioners are there of the Bentonia style? There’s Skip, there’s Jack Owens, and there’s Jimmy, and that’s pretty much it.” Other musicians in Bentonia played a more upbeat, band-based style. Steber compares their sound to classic Chess Records artists like Little Walter. “Tommy Lee West, Cleo Pullman, Jacob Stuckey…those guys did not play in that quote-unquote ‘Bentonia style’. It was a lot more conventional. All of it was pretty typical mid-century American blues style.”
While it may seem surprising, it’s understandable why many Bentonia musicians didn’t play in the Bentonia style.
The distinctive sound Skip James’s mentor Henry Stuckey brought back from World War I has many admirers today, but that hasn’t always been the case. The recordings Skip James made for Paramount in the 1930s were commercial failures. His concerts during his blues revival-era comeback were less well-attended than those of contemporaries like Mississippi John Hurt. Still, as James’s manager Dick Waterman was quoted as saying, “He was a man of intense pride in his abilities. He was a genius, and he knew it.”
History has now proven what Skip James knew all his life.
Decades after James’s death, the music he brought from Bentonia to the world is being seen as the gift it is. With Jimmy “Duck” Holmes as its living incarnation, and more fans than ever before, the Bentonia sound is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Skip James would be proud.