by CR Humphrey / Old Gray Mule
Bentonia, MS is one of those places that just have a spooky vibe about it. The first time I rolled into town, it was in the middle of the night and I had some Jack Owens playing on my car radio…something about that minor-tuned guitar, Jack’s plaintive howling vocal, and the full moon peeking through the trees…it was more than just a little eerie. Bentonia, MS and the style of music it spawned may not be well known to the average blues fan, but I reckon most of y’all have heard of Skip James, and if you haven’t heard of him, you’ve certainly heard of his music. Here are two of the more famous songs/lyrics in the Bentonia School:
“Hard times is here, everywhere I go, times is harder, than ever befo’ ” – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
“I’d rather be the Devil, than be that woman’s man.” – Devil Got My Woman
Skip James is by far the most famous bluesman of the Bentonia style, being part of the revival and rediscovery of the 1960’s, and by any standard must be seen as the man responsible for introducing the “Bentonia School” to a wider audience, but he was not the only Bentonia bluesman. Jack Owens, Jacob, Dodd and Henry Stuckey, Cornelius Bright, Bud Spires, and Tommy West, were all Bentonia bluesmen, with only Jimmy “Duck” Holmes still living in Bentonia and performing the hometown style.
So what makes Bentonia style so different and haunting? Well, on guitar it involves a minor open tuning, Open E Minor and Open D Minor specifically…and I mean “neighborhood of E or D”. Having played a few shows with Duck Holmes, he tunes his guitar to where ever his voice feels comfortable that day. So in order to learn this style, you have go to be willing to modify your tuning to whatever the man playing on the record is tuned to. Also in this Blues form, the more traditional chord progressions and rhythmic structures are rarely if ever used. Vocally it stands out as well, the two most recorded men (James and Owens) also sang in an almost ominous falsetto, with their voices trilling high over the darkness coming out of their guitars. Bentonia did not encompass just guitar either, Blind Bud Spires was a well known harmonica player and sideman to Jack Owens, Skip James himself was also renowned as a piano player and if my memory serves, Dodd Stuckey played a sort of bass and percussion hybrid with a mop handle, a bucket, and the wood floor of the juke.
In today’s world the Bentonia style has all but disappeared. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (above) is the last Bentonia bluesman. He runs the Blue Front Cafe there in town, a juke joint that has been run by his family since the 1940’s and is listed as the oldest surviving in Mississippi. Duck can certainly play the traditional Bentonia style, and pays tribute to Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, and Skip James at every performance, but he has developed his own unique style that isn’t really derived from either Delta or Bentonia. To my ears, Duck’s style is a more rhythmic, low tuned, rawer, funkier mix of all Mississippi blues. You can hear some Hill Country in there, you can hear Delta, Bentonia, gospel, and field hollars in there, you can hear Africa in there…like Duck is drawing from closer to the source of all music than most of his contemporaries.
If you’re interested in learning more about this style:
Jack Owens – Devil Got My Woman
Jimmy Duck Holmes – Pencil and Paper
Photo (top) of Jack Owens via Visit Mississippi, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo of Jimmy Duck Holmes and CR outside Blue Front after show, via Molly Humphrey