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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Bentonia and Blues--A Southern Tradition that Keeps Jukin' Along

Bentonia and Blues:
A Southern Tradition that Keeps Jukin' Along
By Debbie Chaney - Sep 25, 1982

"We used to walk through the swamp to Canton with our guitars on our backs and juke all night and walk back home...playing the blues is something I was born with" -- Jack Owens 


As long as there has been heartache, working people, children and good ole corn whiskey, it seems that blues music has been in existence. It's an art that knows only tradition and feeling.

Sitting on a stool in the Blue Front Cafe located by the railroad tracks in Bentonia, Jimmy Holmes takes a puff on his cigarette and tells how the blues has become important to him, to others and to Black culture. 

Holmes talks candidly about how he has researched the history of the blues, particularly in the Bentonia area and how the music continues to survive. "Blues is a feeling," he explains. "It is a form of music that ex-presses life whether it's good or bad. If a guy's ole lady has left him, if he's not working or somebody has stolen his lady he sets down with his guitar and begins putting words together. To appreciate the blues, you've got to live it." 

Holmes has combed the county searching out blues singers, and one of the more notable is the infamous Jack Owens. Owens, who claims to be "up in the seventies" has been playing blues since he was "crawling on the floor." 

He learned, more or less, in "the cotton fields, the corn fields and the pea fields." 

His repertoire of music includes renowned blues titles such as "The Devil," "Cherry Ball," "Keep on Gambling," and "Catfish Blues."

"Jack," said Holmes, "is almost a duplicate of the type of music Skip James, the blues great, played. He knows the guitar like he made it himself." 

Owens and Holmes will be performing at the upcoming "Gateway to the Delta" Arts and Crafts Festival Oct. 2 at the Triangle. The annual event is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce with adjoining activities sponsored by the Yazoo Arts Council and Ricks Memorial Library. 

Music performed during the festival will include concerts given by local choirs and singers, emphasizing black and white gospel, country, bluegrass and blues. Demonstrations will also be given in quilting, tatting, basket weaving, square dancing and other folk art. 

The folklife division of the festival is sponsored by the library and made possible through a grant from the Mississippi Library Commission and the Mississippi Arts Commission. Yazoo County is one of six areas in which folk life programs have been held. 

Holmes will narrate the blues division during the performance by Owens and his blind partner Bud and guitar blues artist Tommy Lee. 

Owens probably became known for his talents when he and friends would travel around the county and surrounding areas to "play at country jukes." He and Bud became partners when they "would go to the juke house and play." As far as Bud's handicap, Owens says there's no problem. "I just sit close to him so he can feel me moving— I don't know hardly how he can tell when but we just messed around so much," said Owens of the man's unique talent in being able to change keys and know when Owens is beginning another song. 

Holmes agrees, saying "Ben and Jack are like two peas in a hull. It seems like they are interchangeable. 

"They have an intangible relationship between the two of them." 

Visitors to the festival will have the opportunity to see and hear how the blues has touched the lives of these three men, Black culture and the South. And possibly even their own.