Mississippi is world famous for it’s diverse musical legacy. While the region is perhaps most well known for it’s searing delta blues, the southern state’s unique diversity in music has long been a part of it’s charm. Geographical regions and particularly powerful and influential blues musicians could spawn entire sub-genres and styles of blues. Perhaps one of the most striking, haunting styles comes from the small town of Bentonia, Mississippi — the aptly named Bentonia Blues.
The “Bentonia school of blues” is synonymous with two things; haunting chords, often played on the guitar in open E or D minor, and blues legend Nehemiah “Skip” James, one of the town’s most celebrated residents. James was an enigmatic, powerful bluesman. First recording for Paramount Records in the early 1930s, he cut what are now regarded as some of the greatest blues classics; “22-20 Blues”, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, “Devil Got My Woman”, and more. Having made the records during the crest of the Great Depression, the music lingered in general obscurity, and James gave up playing for decades. In the 1960s, the folk scene exploded, bringing a resurgent interest in musicians like Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and James. This huge new fan base allowed James to enjoy great success as a musician, playing at folk and blues festivals across the country and re-igniting a thirty year long recording hiatus. It also brought a renewed interest in the varying styles of blues, giving an entirely new and widespread audience their first look at the music that called Bentonia home.
Bentonia, the small town of less than two thousand, peacefully nestled on Highway 49 below Yazoo City, has embraced it’s unique musical legacy, hosting the famous Bentonia Blues Festival by the Blue Front Cafe — a world-renown juke joint owned by contemporary Bentonia-styled bluesman Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. The Bentonia Blues Festival is currently celebrating it’s 40th birthday — it’s longevity and strength fueled by the great talent in the area, as well as the loosely-described “school” of music that bears it’s namesake. This year’s festival, being held June 16th, will feature delta staples Bill Abel, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, “Jimmy Duck Holmes”, and many more!
Both the Blue Front Cafe and Nehimiah “Skip” James have earned markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is a critically-acclaimed recording artists for the Broke and Hungry Records label, continuing the open tuning legacy of the area and his predecessors while maintaining the Blue Front, which has been featured in several documentaries on Mississippi Juke Joints, the latest of which is the acclaimed We Juke up in Here. James’ tracks continue to have far-reaching influence — his “22-20 Blues” was borrowed by Robert Johnson, who crafted “32-30 Blues”, and more recently, Chris Thomas King prominently played a faithful rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor” in the hit movie (and soundtrack) O Brother Where Art Thou. For an incredible four decades, The Bentonia Blues Festival has and continues to bring thousands of fans to the small town, helping to both celebrate & enrich it’s musical legacy. The far-reaching effects of the Bentonia blues is a fascinating display of the diversity and influence that varying styles of blues can have on the world and music, and it’s recognition is substantially deserved.