country blues and heat An Damp and Sultry Afternoon at the 45th Bentonia Blues Festival

the why, the wheN

Most people who know of Mississippi blues know mainly of the Mississippi Delta region, and others of the into-it sorts know about Hill Country Blues in the northern part of the state. But a tiny little town in the hilly region between Jackson and Yazoo City, a sizable town which sits at the Delta border (such as it is) is tiny Bentonia, a place with its own, distinct blues history. The style even has its own Wikipedia entry! Well, half of everything has a Wikipedia entry now, including episodes of television shows with middling to poor ratings. But, really, this place is tiny tiny, so this is quite the accomplishment.

Then its blues heritage lives on, largely at the town's Blue Front Cafe, which I visited for a mini-festival last October, when it had a mini-festival in connection with Bridging the Blues, which ties together a series of blues events in sections of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

The Blue Front Cafe, Bentonia

The Bentonia club is owned and operated by Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, and it is he who keeps the Bentonia blues alive today. It's a great place to visit, year round. Here was the scene in October.

The Blue Front Cafe, at dusk

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, proprietor of the Blue Front, at right

McKinney Williams, aka Mr. Entertainer, at right

Guitarist from Chicago (Johnny T, I think it was)

Before this year, however, I had never been to the Bentonia Blues Festival, which just happens to be one of the oldest blues events in the country. Last weekend, it was held for the 45th year in a row. It was held, more specifically, on the third Saturday in June, the same as it always has.

On to the Festival

I will keep this short and snappy, or relatively so. Suffice it to say that I thoroughly enjoyed going out to the event. It is held way out on a farm, just off U.S. 49, about two miles miles up the road from town and the Blue Front. I had earlier feared that it might have been rained out. We'd had wild storms in Jackson the night before, with torrential rains and as much lightning in any storm I'd experienced in a few years.

In the end, Saturday had sunlight aplenty, as well as heat and humidity, although I feared that my car, a Corolla, was so completely unsuited for farm roads and parking after the night's rains that I would get stuck out there. My drive through the grass parking area was of the hairy variety. I made it fine, however, just in time to see most of the performance of New York guitarist Harlem Slim, a devotee of Mississippi country blues and the likes of Skip James. He's seen at the top of this piece, but... Here's a reminder.

Unfortunately, the interior of the festival grounds was by turns muddy or sogged, in addition to having no trees, which made sitting there less than bearable for me--despite the fact that, unlike Harlem Slim, I live around here!

Whatever the case, I ended up spending most of my time at the event underneath some oak trees near a small pond, adjacent to the stage area. I had plenty of company, from younger people with collegiate chairs and "Beer Geek" shirts and such, to longhairs to old coots on three wheel mud vehicles. I even saw an old dude in dreadlocks near me. Some other folks barbecued, the main chef in one of those multi-colored umbrella hats. No one really bothered anybody. I even took a semi-nap at one point. Here's a shot through the trees. It reminded me of spending time out in the country as a kid.

I had a barbecue pork plate and lemonade out there too. Sounds like a rough time, right?

In between, I saw plenty of performers, with favorites including North Mississippi Hill Country Blues musicians Terry “Harmonica” Bean and Leo "Bud" Welch, the Delta's Bill Abel and Cadillac John Nolden, and others. I also had fresh local watermelon, checked out the new Mississippi blues stamps with Bentonia's Holmes on them, and hung out. I'll be back next year, no matter the heat and humidity, if Mother Nature and my schedule otherwise allow.

Mississippi Bicentennial Stamp, from the USPS, with Jimmy "Duck" Holmes. Art direction by Greg Breeding, via a photo by Lou Bopp.
Leo "Bud" Welch

Watermelon!

Tractor on the festival grounds

Overview of the stage grounds, via the sound tent

Terry "Harmonica" Bean, right

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