In Conversation with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes

In Conversation with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
 

I had briefly heard Elvis play rock and roll, and I was determined to do some rock and roll stuff, but I guess it was a divine intervention that every time I started on rock and roll, I would always go back to the Bentonia Style of blues.

 

 

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a prodigious guitar player of the Bentonia Style of blues and the proprietor of the historic Blue Front Café in Bentonia, MS. The Blue Front, which was started by his parents in the forties, is the oldest remaining juke joint in the state. In 2016 The United States Postal Service issued the Mississippi Statehood Commemorative Forever Stamp that featured a close-up rendering of Holmes’s hands. This interview was conducted in August of 2016 via telephone.

It has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Jamey Hatley: I’ll start with (asking) how did the guitar become your instrument? 

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes: Well, the particular style of music I play guitar-wise is labeled, guitar-wise, not lyrics, a particular style of tuning is traced back to Bentonia, in 1957 by a man—

JH: What was his name?

JDH: Henry Stuckey. They have a lot of stuff on the internet about him but no recordings. He was the one that originated that particular style, known world-wide as the Bentonia Style of blues. And like I was saying, the first guitar I had hands on was his in 1957 and he—I was only ten years old, so I didn’t have no ambition to do nothing. I had briefly heard Elvis play rock and roll, and I was determined to do some rock and roll stuff, but I guess it was a divine intervention that every time I started on rock and roll, I would always go back to the Bentonia Style of blues.

JH: Right, right.

JDH: So, like I was saying, I got introduced to the guitar in 1957 and that was like—the Biblical term for that is “planting the seed.” And then in the early to mid-sixties, I visited my uncle in New York and he played some, and I call that putting a little water on it. 

JH: Right, right.

I picked my guitar up and played him [Jeff Konkel] a couple notes and he said, “I’ll be back next month to record you.” Since then it took off like a wildfire.

JDH: To make sure the seeds don’t get withered, but knew that by relating that to a seed, and to make sure it don’t wither and that was the early to mid-sixties and off and on, I would pick it up. And then in the seventies there was this guy that was familiar with the Bentonia Style of playing started hanging around the legendary Blue Front, and I was sorta like—I didn’t have a guitar of my own, so I would get theirs and start strumming, and I would always want to play rock and roll, and they would say, “Naw man, we don’t play no rock and roll!”( Laughs.) And then about the mid-seventies, I went to Radio Shack and bought me a little small guitar. And the old-timer would help me tune it this way or that way. But what I’m saying is that the seed got planted in 1957 in me guitar-wise. As time progressed, I learned the Hill Country stuff, what they call Hill Country Blues, but there was a couple of guys still existing in Bentonia that could play the style who come up with Henry Stuckey. And they hung around the Blue Front daily, daily, daily. And this one guy in particular, Jack Owens, he has a lot of stuff on the Internet too, and this is me thinking now that this was a divine thing, because in his last glorious years he would come by three or four times a month to teach me, but he could neither read nor write. So, he couldn’t tell me a E or G or A or closed or open. And when he saw it wasn’t working by him just playing, he told me to just watch his hands.

JH: Right.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes. Photo courtesy of Sam Tucker.

JDH: And I credit (my success playing) that particular style of blues, the Bentonia Style of blues to a man named Jeff Konkel. September of 2005, he came through in search of someone and not knowing I could play—he came from St. Louis in September of 2005. The guys that I had followed around—they were my mentors—he was coming to see what kind of information I had that I could tell him about those guys. And so when he came on a Saturday afternoon, September, October, and wrote down a few things I told him about my part with the old-school blues guys and he said, did you learn any of it? And I said, “Well, I don’t know. Y’all got to determine that.” And he said, “Do you mind playing a couple of tunes for me?” I told him, “I’ll do that.” I picked my guitar up and played him a couple notes and he said, “I’ll be back next month to record you.” Since then it took off like a wildfire.

JH: Fantastic. That is fantastic.

JDH: I didn’t know it, and still today I can’t grasp it. The reason I can’t grasp it is because I’m not on the—I’m on the inside. If I was on the outside looking in, then I would know what it really means. And he said that you can’t know because you’re a part of it.

JH: Exactly. You need other people to see, because when I was a little girl, I didn’t even know I was writing stories. And my uncle was like, If you wanna write something, you ought to write about these blues people, and here this is thirty years later. (Laughs) And here I am doing exactly that.

JDH: Mississippi Blues--like I was out of town in Seattle, Washington and they said that Mississippi is the only state where blues comes in different categories—like Delta Blues, Hill Country, Bentonia Style. Now a lot of the states got blues, and they were saying Chicago only have Chicago Style Blues. They say Mississippi got it separated. You got Delta. You got Hill Country. You got Bentonia Style. I didn’t know all that. 

JH: Right, because you’re in it.

JDH: That’s what they say now, and then they say I don’t realize it because I’m a part of it.

If God put something on my spirit, I say it. Other than that, I don’t know. 

JH: Right, Right. Exactly. So, from my reading, I understand that your parents owned the café first, right? 

JDH: They started in 1948 and I took over in July 1, 1970. So, the Blue Front been a part of my life all of my life.

JH: All of your life.

JDH: It has never been closed. I come here right now seven days a week. I might not stay all day because I only live half a mile away.

JH: Uh huh

JDH: I’ll run down—

JH: To check on it.

JDH: Uh huh. But if I’m not here, my daughter’s here. It’s pretty much become a tourist attraction. 

JH: Did you always know that you would run it?

JDH: Naw, naw! I credit that to the Divine Almighty.

JH: Right.

JDH: I can devote a little more time to it because I’m retired. I’m 69 years old, I’m retired. So at one time I worked eight, nine hour days and come in here in the afternoon, but now, since I’m retired, at least the majority of my time is spent here.

JH: What did you think you might do instead of running the café?

JDH: Wait on the mailman.

JH: Oh, wait on the mailman? To bring a check? (Laughs.) I know like you said, it’s been open, it’s never closed. And so many of those places like yours are disappearing.

JDH: Really, like 90 percent of them are already gone.

JH: Right.

JDH: You got some locations that are marked with the blues trail marker, but this is one of the only ones still open. That’s what makes it so important. 

JH: What do you think? Can you think why that is?

JDH: Because it was built for a jook joint day one. Lots of jook joints, jook clubs, whatever you want to call them—was once something else, but this was built for a jook joint.

JH: Okay, right. It didn’t try to become one, it was built for one.

JDH: It was built for one. 

JH: So what’s a good day at the Blue Front for you?

JDH: Every day. 

I know you have probably seen pictures of it on the internet.

JH: I have, I have.

JDH: But it’s authentic! Don’t look for nothing fabulous. It is what it is.

JH: Mr. Jimmy, I, my, when I went to see my granny at my granny’s house, they didn’t have plumbing. We went to the outhouse up to the year 2000 or so. 

JDH: Since you mention that, we had outhouses out in the back. When my mom and dad was running it, wasn’t no inside rest areas. And I always told the people, if you got an emergency, go on the back.

JH: That’s right! So when I write these stories, they think I’m making them up. 

JDH: I know where you’re coming from. And if you ever come around, you can do a walk through and you can see the doors at the back of the Blue Front that used to lead to the two outhouses on the back, so I can feel where you’re coming from.

JH: Yeah, yeah, that’s why it’s important for me, especially being a black girl. You know, that’s a writer to capture stories that sound like home. 

JDH: The Blue Front is small in structure. It’s not exceptionally small. It’s 30 x 60. But back in the days, during my early childhood, in my teenage years, it seemed so huge. 

JH: Right.

JDH: And the historians told me, whatever I do, don’t change anything. He said if you gotta accommodation that is coming by and there’s not enough room inside, so be it. Don’t’ try to expand it. That’ll take something away from it.

JH: Right. Because I think that places like that are containers for people’s joy. For people’s sorrow. And I think that’s what’s wrong with communities, that they don’t have those spaces to hold our feelings when we are sad.

JDH: All my bar stools are originally made out of wood, so they’re not all broken down. They still steady structured. I’d like to know the guy that built them. The original bar stools and the wooden bar. Of course, you know the tables and chairs, the original ones, they will wear out. Everything but those tables and chares are the original things. This cinder block building and these concrete floors. That’s original.

JH: Right. That has the home and the true spirit.

JDH: I had one kid that come by, he was a historian, too. And I was asking him if should do something to it and he said, naw man, people build things now to try to make it look old.

Lots of jook joints, jook clubs, whatever you want to call them—was once something else, but this [Blue Front Cafe] was built for a jook joint.

JH: They do! They sand it. Some of the places up here, they sand, they paint and then sand the paint off and all of this old kinda stuff. I went to a place like that the other day and they were trying to be Nashville in Memphis instead of just being who they are.

JDH: They told me don’t do nothing to try to make it look more attractive. And I remember, one of the old guys I always talk about that I kinda come up under guitar-wise (Jack Owens) was getting ready to do a Levi’s commercial here and the locations people came out here. Everything had been signed off on and they came to see if they was gonna have to bring anything, so I go to sweeping the cobwebs down and they said, please Mr. Holmes, don’t take ‘em down, because if you do, we gonna have to blow some more up there. He said those are original. Please don’t take those spider webs down.

JH: Right, right, cause that’s all in the spirit. That’s all in the spirit. Well thank you—

JDH: Naw, I was just finna say, you can imagine how long it took those spiders to build those webs.

JH: They at home, too!

JDH: Like I was saying, I was up in Seattle, week before last, doing some activities. I did a concert also, but the most important thing was after the concert the people that organized it was talking about the different styles of blues and I told him I can’t teach you nothing, but I can show you something. I can’t teach you, but I can show you. I don’t read music, but I can show you how it’s done, but I can’t teach you. I told him, I can’t teach you, cause if I leave here and ain’t taught him—but if you show ‘em, it’s on them whether they can do it or not. 

JH: Thank you, thank you. You have really blessed me today. Listening to you talking about your music was like me talking about my writing, and so I’m getting this work done, but I’m also helping my own self so you’ve been a divine intervention for me today.

JDH: Like I was saying, people ask my manager about how I give such good interviews. Let me tell you something about your writing. I’m 69 years old. Let me tell you about your life. Baby, don’t lie! Shoot straight! Shoot straight from the hip!

JH: Yes, yes.

JDH: Don’t fabricate nothing when you get ready to write it. You write it just like you seen it, just like you heard it.

JH: Yes.

JDH: If they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to, I just tell them I really don’t know. I don’t never lie in interviews. 

JH: Right, right. Exactly.

JDH: I told my manager that people always comment on how well I do interviews. I told him I don’t lie. If God put something on my spirit, I say it. Other than that, I don’t know. 

JH: Thank you so much.

JDH: You have a blessed one.

JH: You too.

 

 

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Footnotes

  1. ^ The photo of Jimmy "Duck" Holmes at the top of this article is copyright of Rustin Gudim.

Jamey Hatley

Jamey Hatley

Jamey Hatley is a Memphian obsessed with stories in ruin, at the very edge of being forgotten. Her writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Memphis Noir, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. She is a Prose Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award Winner, and the Indie Memphis Black Screenwriting Fellow (selected by Barry Jenkins). She wrote, directed, and produced a short film based on her story-essay, “Always Open, The Eureka Hotel.” She is also at work on a feature screenplay and a novel. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America, East.