Yazoo Blues makes History
with Raw Emotion, Sound and Talent
By Jamie Patterson - Yazoo Herald - February 21, 2015
|Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is pictured outside his family |
business, the historic Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia. The
blues artists groomed within Yazoo are
not only a part of black history but music history.
The sound of the blues seems to dance and travel on the winds that sweep through rural Yazoo County.
Her faint, haunting melody serves as a re-minder of her rich his-tory along the Yazoo clay hills and amidst her Delta flatlands.
From Bentonia Blues to Delta blues to hill country blues, the music is a part of Yazoo's black history. It's history, point blank.
One could get lost in the mountain of literature, old recordings and modern pieces of the Yazoo blues. But there are a few names that stick out within the local movement that changed and influenced the music world.
And most stories begin with a young black man and his guitar on a small farm or rural community, deep within Yazoo County.
Nehemiah "Skip" James
Nehemiah "Skip" James is hailed as one of the greats when it comes to blues music. His dark, finger-picking technique would influence several generations of future blues musicians from blues legend Robert Johnson to modern blues king Eric Clapton.
And his story begins on June 9, 1902 on the Woodbine Plantation in the Bentonia community. He was born the son of a preacher who converted from bootlegging.
Music struck a cord with him at an early age, being around local musicians Henry Stuckey and others. It wasn't long before the organ was James' outlet.
During the early 1920s, James worked along levees and other road construction projects. His earliest song Illinois Blues is believed to have been written surrounding his early labor days.
James was beginning to make a name for himself with his dark lyrics, intense vocals and complex playing.
In the early 1930s, James auditioned for a record shop owner and talent scout in Jackson. He made such an impression that he soon headed to Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records. It was a long way from home for the Yazoo boy, but he was courageous in his de-sire to be successful with his music.
James' career and recordings were becoming well-known in the market. And then the Great Depression hit. Sales began to decrease, and the world continued turning. James soon quit performing.
In fact, he became the choir director in his father's church. He would later be ordained a minister himself. For the next three decades, very little is known about James. He kept to himself and performed very little, if at all. Until the 1960s when James returned to the music world, after being found in a Tunica hospital by a few blues music lovers. He would return to the recording studios and on stage throughout the remainder of the decade.
James died in 1969 in Philadelphia from cancer.
In comparison to other blues musicians, little is known about Tommy McClennan. Many interviews and recordings with other blues artists make no mention of him.
However, he was one of the most successful bluesman of his time and left the music world with a number of notable recordings.
There is some discussion as to where McClennan was actually born. It was believed that he was born in the early 1900s in Yazoo City. But other records show his birthplace as Durant.
Despite his birthplace, McClennan spent some of his life in Yazoo City, near the J. F. Sligh plantation.
Known as "Bottle Up" within the Yazoo community, he began gaining attention for his raucous, singing and talented guitar playing.
The small-framed McClennan frequented the Ren Theater on Water Street in Yazoo City. He was a popular figure among local pool halls and music joints. And he was often spot-ted at the Cotton Club, a blues hall on Champlin Avenue.
A Greenwood musician, Booker Miller, would sell McClennan a guitar in 1937. Two years later, a Chicago record man came looking for him, ready to record some tracks. It wasn't long before McClennan was on his way to Chicago with his powerful voice, unleashing a unique sound.
McClennan recorded several singles for the Bluebird label during the 1930s and 1940s. But the music stopped in the 1950s.
McClennan remained in the Chicago area, but there is little to find out about that era. He was last seen by fellow blues musicians, living in a hobo house, poor and drinking heavily. He died in Chicago in May 9, 1951.
Jack Owens may have grew up poor in a rural Yazoo farming community, but his musical talent would later take him all over the world and permanently place him in blues royalty.
Owens was born in 1904 as L.F. Nelson in Bentonia. His father would abandoned his family when he was only five years old. He was then raised by his maternal family, the Owens.
Owens began experimenting with a number of musical instruments at a very young age. From the fiddle to the piano, he showed potential.
But it was the guitar that showed his raw, God-given talent.
Owens went through life farming, bootlegging and running a local juke joint. His buddy, Skip James, was quick to leave town thanks to his musical talent. It was time for the big city, big lights and big things for his childhood buddy.
But James would rather sit on his front porch, with his guitar. Owens didn't begin recording until the 1960s.
People noticed that when he played the guitar.tar and sang, Owens would stomp his foot for rhythm and had a quiet voice. He would sing loudly for people to hear him, however.
Owens would travel to Europe several times to perform at an assortment of music festivals. Owens died at the age of 92 years old in Yazoo City in 1997.
Arnold "Gatemouth" Moore may have been born in Kansas, but his personality, talent, style and memory remains in Yazoo City.
Gatemouth was born in 1913 in Topeka, Kansas. As a young boy, he enjoyed singing ballads and other spirituals. While still a teenager, he joined a traveling show that landed him in the Mississippi Delta. Within the year, he was on his way to Memphis, where he would graduate from Booker T. Washington High School.
He earned his nickname for what he described as having a loud speaking and singing voice.
Gatemouth began gaining attention with his over-the-top performances. From the blues to gospel, he gave it his all.
He made quite the performance at Chicago's Club DeLisa on a cold night in 1948. Perhaps nervous at first, he was silent. And then he began belting out a gospel tune.
That performance made a lot of headlines.
During the 1940s, Gatemouth gained popularity. Blues legend B.B. King would record one of Gatemouth's songs, sparking a friendship.
Gatemouth would later answer the call-ing to join the min-istry. He served as pastor to several churches, including Bethel A. M. E. Church and Lintonia A. M. E. Church in Yazoo City. He died in Yazoo City on May 19, 2004.
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes
Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is the man who is keeping the Bentonia Blues alive in Yazoo City and all over the world.
With one of the oldest juke joints in Mississippi, he owns and operates the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia. The historic cafe may have a house-full of local patrons or Swedish visitors, all in one weekend.
Thanks to Holmes' one-of-a-kind talent and desire to preserve not only blues history but Yazoo's history, visitors from all over the world and locals are reminded of a unique time and place.
Holmes was born to sharecroppers Carey and Mary Holmes in 1947. A year later, the family would open the Blue Front Cafe.
The cafe sold groceries, prepared hot meals, held a barber-shop and sold bootleg corn liquor. The money earned from the successful operation would send most of the Holmes children to college.
It was in this environment that Holmes was raised among blues musicians.
It was on the front porch of the Blue Front and among the backroads of Yazoo that Holmes began to master the Bentonia Blues, an eerie and distinct style of music. Skip James was the most famous musician to play in this style. Holmes never met Skip James. But he studied the style and looked up to Jack Owens.
Holmes mastered the Bentonia Blues and began promoting the movement in the 1970s with the first Bentonia Blues Festival, which began on his family land before moving to the Blue Front. Now the festival, the music and the life are revisited by a pilgrim-age of fans, supporters and visitors.