By Kathryn Winter. Photography courtesy of the Bentonia Blues Festival, thebluegrasssituation.com
The Bentonia Blues Festival all started with one man- the legendary Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Holmes is known as the last of the Bentonia Bluesmen. His café, Blue Front Café, sits on highway 49, about 30 miles northwest of Jackson.
The festival will be celebrating its 45th year and is now the oldest blues festival in the country. Holmes Blue Front Café, established in 1948, is the oldest surviving juke joint in the United States. His new album, “It Is What It Is”, was rated the Best Blues album of 2016 and the 19th Best Album Overall for 2016 by Paste Magazine. Holmes is featured on the new Forever stamp, released March 31 from the U.S. Post office for Mississippi’s bicentennial. He is also nominated for Best Acoustic Blues Artist and Best Acoustic Blues Album by the Blues Foundation for the Blues Music Awards 2017.
Appearing at numerous festivals across the US and Canada, Holmes will perform at favorites including the Baton Rouge Blues Festival, Juke Joint Blues Festival, Double Decker Arts Festival, Vancouver Island Blues Festival, Paramount Blues Festival, King Biscuit Blues Festival, Delta Blues Festival, and many others.
The annual Bentonia Blues Festival is always held the third Saturday of June in downtown Bentonia. Additionally, the festival’s Blues Stage is set up in front of the world-famous Blue Front Cafe which is still operated by proprietor Jimmy “Duck” Holmes who, as a young man, largely learned the local style from Bentonia Blues master Jack Owens.
Bentonia was also the hometown of Henry Stuckey, founder of the Bentonia style of Blues, and his two famous students, Skip James and Jack Owens. Sometimes Holmes will break out an impromptu performance at his café. Blue Front has received a historical marker by the Mississippi Blues Commission commemorating its importance in the history of developing blues in Mississippi. It is also officially on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
In 1972, Jimmy and his mother started a family reunion that quickly grew into the Bentonia Blues Festival. People just started coming, he knew a lot of musicians and by 1974 they started advertising it. This year the festival will be held June 12 through the 16th, at the Blue Front Café. Die-hard fans come back every year to celebrate the blues, eat barbecue and enjoy each other’s company.
Sean Ardoin, a musician who played last year said it’s a “Down home festival with good locals running it. It’s like a big backyard party in a huge field! Jimmy Duck Holmes is a blues legend and it’s in his backyard. If you’re into culture and authenticity, this is your festival.”
Crafts, music, food, water slide and jump house for kids are all part of the festival. They also raffle off various items- last year it was a quilt, in the past it’s been items like passes to the BB King museum. The festival is free, there’s no admission price.
“It’s for people who love the blues. There’s no big rock acts or anything, it’s pretty much the real blues,” Michael Schulze said. “It’s one of those things where people enjoy and feel apart of it. This isn’t a business transaction where you see music and leave. It’s a real communal kind of comfortable downhome event.”
Schulze is an attorney in New Orleans and also Holmes’ manager. He was a fan of Holmes and when he went to get his CD signed, they ended up chatting for two to three hours about different things. Then Schulze expressed interest in learning how to play, and pretty soon he had developed a relationship with Holmes, including lessons and attending the festival.
People come to meet the musicians-who are available and accessible to fans, including Jimmy. “If someone is talking to a musician, you don’t have to worry about him running off because you can come back and talk to them,” according to Schulze. Schulze said what makes the festival unique is that it’s an extension of Holmes.
“It’s very laid back, people bring blankets and sit on the grass. He really wants his fans to enjoy the festival. I usually don’t like festivals, but this one is my favorite because it’s a best-kept secret. It’s a relaxed enjoyable afternoon for all.”
Holmes has a huge following, even in Europe, because he is the last person to play the particular style of blues. The last guys who played this style died in the 1960s and 70s. People from the local community who have moved away return for this event, planning family reunions during the time.