- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

BENTONIA, Miss. — The Blue Front Cafe seems a remnant of the past — a time when people crowded into cinderblock juke joints to swill whiskey or beer while listening to Jack Owens play a haunting, slow style of blues on his guitar.

The counters are covered with vinyl. Box fans stir a warm breeze. An old jukebox gathers dust. Cigarette butts fill the ashtrays atop wooden tables that are paired with resin lawn chairs.

And on the walls are the ghosts. The largest being a photograph of Mr. Owens, an old man holding his instrument close to his heart. The rest are snapshots of those who pioneered the music that best captures the hopes and heartbreaks of the poor man and the land — such as Son Thomas and Muddy Waters.

The cafe has been in the family of Jimmy “Duck” Holmes since 1948 and is considered the home of Bentonia blues, a playing style made famous by Mr. Owens and his contemporary, Skip James. Scholars describe the Bentonia sound as a minor-tuned, acoustic country blues sung in a near falsetto.

No doubt, the cafe will find its way onto the Mississippi Blues Trail, which state officials tout as the only one of its kind in the world. Once complete, the trail will include markers identifying historic blues sites for tourists who flock to the state.

But Mr. Holmes isn’t too interested in the trail right now. He’s a man blessed with a burden.

Some think Mr. Holmes is the last musician alive who knows how to play the Bentonia blues style, a craft he learned as a boy sitting at the feet of Mr. Owens. But he has been unable to pass his knowledge to others who often ask for informal lessons after he finishes a gig.

“That particular style, they can’t grab it,” Mr. Holmes says. “I wish it wouldn’t die with me.”

Mr. Holmes, 58, released his first compact disc, “Back to Bentonia,” in April, giving a larger audience a glimpse of his natural talent.

One of his fans is Mark Camarigg, publications manager of Living Blues, perhaps the oldest blues magazine in the United States.

“I went down there to interview him and it’s almost like a time warp. I was almost dumbfounded by how he sounds more like a contemporary of Skip James rather than a student,” Mr. Camarigg said. “I think that’s what makes him a pretty special find. That you would have a guy in this day and age and his sound does not reflect modern influences.”

Mr. Camarigg said Henry Stuckey may have originated the Bentonia style after picking up the unique guitar technique from French soldiers while he served in World War I. It was perfected by Mr. James, along with Mr. Owens. Mr. James died in 1969, Mr. Owens in 1997.

Mr. Holmes, a college-educated professional who works for the public school system, wasn’t always proud of his innate skill. When he was a student at Jackson State University, he wouldn’t play in front of his peers.

“I just didn’t want anybody to know I played them old, country blues. I kept that a secret. I just recently came public with what I do,” he said.

But people all over the world know about the Blue Front Cafe. Recently, 2,000 blues fans trekked to town for the 34th annual Bentonia Blues Festival that is held outside the cafe every year.

“It is an important blues location and historic juke joint,” said Luther Brown, a member of the Mississippi Blues Commission, which is choosing the sites for the trail.

The first nine sites to receive markers by summer’s end include the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, where bluesmen such as Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II spent the night, and Stovall Farms, home of Muddy Waters before he headed north to Chicago to find fame and some fortune. Others are Charley Patton’s grave in Sunflower County and the radio station in Greenwood where B.B. King first went on air.

Locating the sites isn’t always easy. The grave of Robert Johnson is a good example of the challenges scholars face.

The seminal bluesman, who was only 27 when he died on Aug. 16, 1938, is buried either in a cemetery adjacent to Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church near Greenwood or outside Payne Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Quito or Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Morgan City.

Another goal of the commission is to clear up a misconception about the roots of the music form, Mr. Brown said.

“It’s in Chicago. It’s in London. It’s scattered all over the place,” he said. “We’re doing what we can to form a conscious link in the minds of people that the blues actually came from Mississippi.”

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