Monday, May 1, 2017

Bentonia Blues Trail Marker Dedicated

Skip James Blues Trail Marker Dedicated
By Jason Patterson - Yazoo Herald - September 2008
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes performs Skip James
songs in front of the Mississippi Blues Trail
Marker bearing James' name following
the dedication of the marker in Bentonia. 
There are a number of people around the world who probably couldn’t find Bentonia on a map, yet they have a vivid picture of the place in their minds. They feel intimately connected with the town because of the Bentonia Blues, a unique style of music embraced by blues fans worldwide.

In 1967 one of those fans was none other than British music legend Eric Clapton, who had recorded Bentonia native Skip James' "I'm So Glad" with Cream. Clapton was considered by many to be the hottest guitar player around and had sold countless albums, but he still seemed in awe of one of his musical heroes when he met Skip James in New York City. Dick Waterman, the late James' former manager, recalled that meeting Thursday during a dedication of a Mississippi Blues Trail historic marker in James' honor.

"Eric was terribly nervous," Waterman said. "He was absolutely transfixed to be in the presence of one of his all-time icons. There was a guitar in the room and Eric refused to play in the presence of Skip James. Skip took the guitar, looked at Eric and said, 'Alright white boy, this is how the song goes."'

Waterman remembered James as a talented musician who was extremely intelligent, but also aloof. "

A misconception about bluesmen is that they don't read, they don't write, they're poor and they were lucky enough to learn a chord or two and then got lucky again and made a record," Waterman said. "I want to tell you that Skip James was very different from that. He was a very literate man. His handwriting was beautiful."

Waterman said James wasn't always an easy man to get along with, however.

Dick Waterman, Skip James' former manager, 
holds a photograph of James performing live
for the first time in about 30 years during 
comeback performance in the 60s. "This man was
stepping out of the unknown," he said. "He took
his guitar and I wanted to capture the moment." 
"He was a proud man. He was very vain, and he had a tremendous ego," he said. "He didn't have a lot of friends and he didn't suffer fools very well. If you were stupid around Skip James, he was going to tell you that you were being stupid. He had a strong mind and was an independent thinker. He didn't make friends easily because he didn't want friends. He was a strong-minded individual."

Waterman said James never exhibited any false modesty about his music either. "He had great pride in his ability," he said.

"He was good and he knew he was good. He didn't mind telling you he was good."

Waterman another thing James was always proud of was his origins.

"He was proud to be from Mississippi.  The state had its problems and he knew it, but wherever he traveled he was always proud to say he was from Mississippi."

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, who is considered by many to be the last living musician to play the authentic Bentonia Blues, said Skip James created a different style of music.

"Bentonia offers something to the world that is unique," Holmes said. "You can thank Skip James for that."

Holmes said the thing that made musicians like James and Bentonia bluesman Jack Owens great was that it came from their hearts.

"Most of the music the old guys played was about things they experienced," Holmes said. "That's why there's something missing from some of the newer blues musicians even though they can really play their guitars. It's got to come from inside."

Nehemiah "Skip" James (1902-1969) was raised on the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia. He learned to play guitar and piano at a young age.

James recorded during the 1930s before disappearing from the music scene entirely for three decades. He made a successful comeback in 1964 and performed until his death in 1969.

Tanja Smith, director of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the crowd that attended Thursday's dedication was larger than expected.  The Skip James marker joins one dedicated to the Blue Front Cafe as the second Mississippi Blues Trail Marker in Bentonia. The Mississippi Blues Trail will feature over 120 historic markers and interpretive sites upon completion and is expected to be a significant tourism destination.

Van Foster, District 1 supervisor, said he is pleased to see that James' legacy will endure.

"We will always be proud of what the blues means to Bentonia, to Yazoo County and to Mississippi," Foster said.

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