There is a sound, a minor-tuned guitar and a falsetto voice, that is like no other in blues: the early recordings of Bentonia, Mississippi, native Skip James. Skip and his contemporary, Jack Owens, both learned from another Bentonia musician who was unfortunately never recorded – Henry Stuckey. The sound, that haunting Bentonia Blues style, can still be heard live in a café where all of the artists mentioned have performed. Bentonia is just outside the Mississippi Delta proper in Yazoo county, and the Blue Front café sits at the center of town between an abandoned cotton gin and the Illinois Central rail link. Jack Owens died several years ago; the leading exponent of the Bentonia blues style today, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, is the proprietor. In my university days I had the great fortune to get to know Duck and the regulars in the Blue Front, both the local oil field workers and the older musicians.
Jack Owens, Mr. Jack, was a fun guy to be around. He needed and accepted help from friends in his last couple years but he was strong and his eyes twinkled as he asked for it. He drove his truck, played guitar and drank a bit of whiskey up until his final illness, usually doing all three things no further from home than the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, Miss. He’d pull in just fine but when time came to go home he’d ask someone to back the truck out and turn it around for him.
I came up to Bentonia from Jackson one time to carry Mr. Jack up to Clarksdale for the Sunflower River Blues Festival, the drive up the Delta to Clarksdale being something other than a straight point-to-point run. When I got to his place Jack was loading a semi-auto pistol magazine. “Can’t never be sure,” he told me, “might somebody want my money.” Jack wasn’t talking about the couple hundred bucks he’d get from the festival promoter, either. We found out when he got sick sometime later that he had a great deal of cash strapped to his body in an elastic money-belt. “Duck” Holmes finally talked Mr. Jack into peeling those bills apart and putting them in the bank. Anyway, as Jack loaded that Colt .22 I asked him if maybe I could carry the clip for him. OK – I gotta be honest – I loved Jack and I love the blues but I didn’t want him throwing down if we stopped for chicken and somebody said something. “Jack,” I said, “let me carry it and if things get bad we’ll both hit the floor and I’ll pass it to you.” “Alright boy,” he said, “that’ll work”.
I miss Jack. I remember well a visit he made to my apartment on State St. in Jackson. Duck brought him down because he had an appearance on an NPR program that was being recorded with a live audience in Jackson – I believe it was “Whatta Ya Know”. My wife was pregnant with our first at the time. Jack observed just generally that “babies has a heap of sense”. He paused a heartbeat and added “Come with a heap of sense”. I loved it, one of those moments when something pretty banal, small talk you might say, gets shoved a notch further by a master singer/storyteller.
That’ll work, Jack, that’ll work.
Here are some links to get your moving on your own trail across the levees and bayous of the Delta. The first three will lead you to more information on the Bentonia blues scene, still very vibrant after Mr. Jack’s passing. There’s an annual blues festival there (see the Facebook link). The second group of three websites (and the one book link) will provide a wider range of information on Delta blues in general. The last three are sites in Memphis that tie in to the still- broader picture of blues in the South.
Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues, Third Edition