Bentonia

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"I'd rather be the devil..."

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On a sticky, darkly overcast October day I headed from Vicksburg to Bentonia (pop 390), just off Highway 49, twenty-five miles north of Jackson, the Mississippi state capitol. Planning a brief stop to visit the grave of Jack Owens, supposedly the last of the Bentonia School of blues musicians, I arrived and parked just by the railroad tracks in front of the Blue Front Café. The Blue Front is mentioned in guides as the jook joint where Jack Owens regularly played with his harp player Bud Spires. A half-mile long freight train passed and I began taking photos of the café. 

“Hello, come right on in. Didn’t I say there was a white man out there! You come on in.” So I was introduced to vivacious Vivian, who had just finished work at the local elementary school for the day. Inside, the café was sparsely furnished, decorated only with a giant poster of Jack Owens. A Les Paul copy hung on the back wall, along with a small drum kit ready for live music.

We bought cokes and I was introduced to twenty-three-year-old Nina, and we discussed what we thought of President G W Bush and his dad, the aftermath of 9.11. and how schools still fail children from deprived areas. When I said why I was there Vivian got excited, “Come on over and see Bud!” We drove 300 yards to the black area across the tracks, Vivian banged on a screen door and there I was being introduced to Bud Spires.

bud 4.jpg (225010 bytes) Bud Spires

We chatted, Bud told me how he had played with Jack Owens for thirty years (from 1967-97) and about their music. He fetched his harp, played a couple of shuffles in E and A and asked me to play along, a real honour. He talked about Skip James, whom he faintly remembered from childhood, and about his real heroes, Muddy Waters and Little Walter. Bud mentioned his father, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Spires, who I found out later had played with Lightning Hopkins in the early 1940’s and then gone to Chicago in 1943. Bud is not in good health, and struggling to make ends meet on welfare. Buy a CD! 

owens5.jpg (60448 bytes) Jack Owen

Vivian then took me off to pay my respects. Four miles out of town, in a quiet field surrounded by woods (not some cypress grove), Jack Owens (1904-1907) is buried under the name of Mr. L. F. Nelson, with a small guitar engraved on the stone. He played in Bentonia for 70 years in the same ‘cross-note’ (D or E minor) tuning that Skip James used. Eventually he was ‘discovered’ in 1965 by David Evans, filmed by Alan Lomax and even appeared in a Levi jeans commercial in 1995!

Returning to the Blue Front Café, Vivian introduced me to Jimmy Holmes, the owner, who had finished work for the day as the local High School Parent Liaison Officer. The Blue Front is used to blues tourists, several Swedes, some Japanese and a couple of Frenchmen having stopped by during that summer, and Jimmy is extremely knowledgeable about the American ‘blues scene’. We had a beer and quietly talked about acoustic blues. The electric guitar was his, and he plays with his band The Blue Front Boys on Sunday afternoons, but Jimmy sees it as his real task to keep the Bentonia style alive. He has now played at a few festivals, in Memphis and at the Sunflower at Clarksdale and is keen to teach youngsters. We talked about John Jackson, whom he had seen in Washington, favourite artists and work of the European Blues Association and similar education programmes in the Delta.

johnny holmes b&w2.jpg (54140 bytes) Jimmy Holmes

After a while he took the old Gibson, tuned to D minor, and began a stunning version of ‘Devil Got My Woman’. A couple of patrons came out to watch, calling out encouragement, “Hit it!” “Let it go!”  As Jimmy sang he was so deeply into the music the intensity was almost overwhelming. Afterwards, someone said, “I really liked old Elmo’. I used to see him round here. Can you play that Dust My Broom?” But Jimmy didn’t want to play any more and I never did get to Elmore James’ and Lonnie Pitchford’s graves at Ebenezer.

After more quiet chat I said my goodbyes. It had been such a magic experience I needed to get away to take it all in. I had found friendly responsiveness to genuine interest, pride in the fame of local musicians, and real pleasure that foreigners seem to value and respect the music. After all the hype of the last forty years there is a faint flame of the old blues still alive in its cultural heart - but it still doesn’t pay the bills. As Vivian said, “What has it ever done for us?”

Under the pitch-black skies of a semi-tropical storm I headed off up Highway 49 for Belzoni and Indianola.

(C) JA May 2003. This article appears in the July 2003 European Blues Association Newsletter