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Mississippi Bluesman keeps the aging music alive

Copyright © africanews
Rogelio V. Solis/Copyright 2021. The Associated Press. All rights reserved


Bentonia is the perfect place to sing the blues.

It's home to its own unique style of the musical genre.

And the Blue Front Cafe is at the heart of that tradition.

On a dusty road in rural Mississippi, it was the first African American-owned business in Bentonia when it opened in 1948.

Now it's the country's oldest surviving juke joint, a cafe and music venue.

And it's owned by bluesman Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, son of Carey and Mary, the cafe's original owners.

"Ninety percent of my time all my life is spent right here. I leave, go home, go to bed, take a shower, take a bath, something to eat, come right back to the Blue Front. Ninety percent of my time – people don't believe that. For 70-plus years, I spent most of my time right here," he says.

Across the South, the venues have shuttered as owners pass away.

Holmes is thought to be the only person running a juke joint once owned by his parents.

He is also the last carrier of a dying musical and oral storytelling tradition, the Bentonia School of Blues.

Some have called the Bentonia style, unique to the small town and characterized by a distinctive minor tonality, a "lost art."

And it has been played in here since the beginning.

"It really started before I can remember. But guys would come in with a harmonica or a guitar. They would either sit on the front porch out front or in here they'll play for tips," Holmes explains.

Seventy three-year-old Holmes is carrying on that tradition, always behind the counter, ready to play for anyone who wants to listen.

His talent has earned him prestigious recognition - he is a Grammy-nominated artist.

He has been nominated for a Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy award for Cypress Grove, a Bentonia blues record Holmes hopes will help to preserve the music long after he's gone.

"People really appreciate what he's doing, right? He's not an outsider coming in and trying to make money. He is – you know – he is Bentonia," says Scott Barretta, of the Mississippi Blues Trail.

When the Blue Front opened, it was a hub for the community.

During cotton-picking season, it was open 24 hours a day to accommodate farm workers.

Musicians lined up outside to play the Blue Front - guitars strapped to their backs and harmonicas in their pockets.

Bentonia never had more than 600 residents, but its location on the Illinois Central Railway drew visitors.

Today, a four-lane highway diverts traffic away from Bentonia. Businesses of Holmes' youth have shuttered; buildings have been torn down. More than a quarter of residents live under the poverty line.

The train passes through town daily but doesn't stop.

But the Blue Front is still standing.

"We recognize that this is one of the major important spots on the blues trail. This is a vernacular structure that has survived, and if we're talking about – historically, talking about juke joints – generally speaking, we have a lot of markers up where nothing is there anymore," says Barretta.

Holmes never imagined leaving. He lives on the same farm where he was raised, about a mile from the Blue Front.

His presence has become Bentonia's biggest draw. Visitors come from all over the world - and the music industry - to see him, to hear the music, and to learn the tradition.

Before the pandemic, Mississippi musicians performed at the Blue Front every other Friday, sometimes more, playing different blues styles.

Holmes holds Bentonia Blues workshops and he's willing to teach the style to anyone who walks in.

"I don't do it for awards. I do it because people – everyday people – appreciate it," he says.

"Now don't get me wrong now, I appreciate the Grammy nomination 100 percent because I know there are several other people that could have got this same – probably better musicians than I am."

"Nominated or no nomination, Ima still do what I do with this guitar."

It's here, at the Blue Front, where Holmes will watch the March 14 ceremony and learn whether he won the Grammy.

He can't go in person because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that suits him just fine.

He'll be surrounded by musicians from across Mississippi who want to play with him.