Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Henry Stuckey, the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, and the Bentonia Blues

Henry Stuckey, the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, and the Bentonia Blues
by Jim Martin for the Yazoo Herald - 1977

That cussed train! Every time you want to get somewhere, there it is cutting you off, crawling along at a snail's pace. What if you had to get to the hospital?

Everybody who has driven in Yazoo City has probably had that same conversation with himself as he sat in the hot sunshine on Grand Avenue waiting for the fool thing to go past. Little do we realize the romantic past of those old tracks.

It was May 1, 1884, when the first train puffed and smoked its way through town and its reception must have been more of jubilation rather than despair. The coming of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad meant the beginning of a new prosperity to the area and the creation of new towns and even of a new music.

Yazoo City became the focal point of the Yazoo District linking Greenwood to Jackson and ultimately Memphis and New Orleans. The Yellow Dog's trip from Yazoo to Jackson gave birth to Bentonia which had before been called Prichett’s Crossroad and to Anding.  The Yazoo clay created such problems on the Anding stretch that the railroad moved in five hundred men to construct the road which became known as the "Million Dollar Baby."

The Yellow Dog headed north in 1884. The towns of Eden, Carter and Holly Bluff were created as railroad stops where only plantations and logging camps had been.

But not only cities and towns and prosperity from shipping cotton were products of the railroad. The popularization of a native form of music was a result of the train's coming. The Blues rode the Yellow Dog too, north from Bentonia to Memphis and from Memphis to all over the world. This excerpt from Harriet DeCell and JoAnne Prichard’s Yazoo Its Legends and Legacies (1976) tells of that journey:
W. C. Handy, the acknowledged Father of the Blues from Memphis, was an orchestra leader for white society dances, playing waltzes, Broadway hits and ragtime, until he spent some time on the Yellow Dog line coming south into the Delta to play for dances in the early days of this century. It was in the Delta that Handy want back to the earthy, lonesome music of the African American and thus became the father of the blues.
Henry Stuckey, of Satartia, can be seen as the unidentified guitarist who played with a slide for Handy at the Tutwiler Train Station.  He was the only one of the country bluesmen who was playing a distinctive kind of music that paved the way for a school known today as "Bentonia Blues." According to David Evans, a devotee of blues and professor of anthropology at California State University, the "Bentonia Blues" guitarists use mainly an open D minor tuning and an intricate picking style. The singing covers a wide range with a tendency to begin high, then "tumble" to a lower final pitch.

According to Big Legal Mess Records, “The origin of the style goes back to a chance meeting between Bentonian Henry Stuckey and black Bahamian soldiers in France during World War I. Stuckey learned an odd E-minor guitar tuning from the Bahamians and when he returned home taught it to his brother Jacob, and to Skip James and the younger Jack Owens.

As these musicians traded ideas in the semi-isolated area of Bentonia, James and Owens perfected the style by adding dark, introspective lyrics. With his overwhelming personality coming through his recordings, James created a haunting and unique sound that continues to influence blues and folk music today. Though James died in 1969 and Owens in 1997, this local style is preserved in the playing of Duck Holmes.”Stuckey taught his style to a more famous bluesman, Skip James. Today, several musicians in the Bentonia area, such as Jack Owens and Jimmy Holmes, who grew up listening to Skip James keep up the Bentonia Blues tradition.