My wife and I became Mississippi tourists on a recent Monday holiday and motored to the Delta town of Cleveland to check out the Mississippi Grammy Museum. We had been meaning to go since its opening in March of 2016. It is, after all, a national attraction in our own backyard. We were not disappointed, but what happened on the way there and back was half the fun.
On the way, we enjoyed the flat earth, early growth crops of corn, cotton and the greenery of the late spring fields. It was a cool, cloudy day. We nodded our approval of the flashing four-way stop sign at the intersection of Highways 7 and 8 in Holcomb. During the I-55 portion of the trip, wife Carol read aloud from the current issue of Garden and Gun magazine, its current issue featuring an article by Greenville native Julia Reed and a mention about the Benton Blues Festival coming up June 12 -17. I learned a lot about the legendary Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, owner of the Blue Front Cafe, including the fact that his hands and guitar grace the Mississippi Statehood Forever Stamp issued in March. I made a mental note to take the U.S. Highway 49 route on our return trip and make a stop in Bentonia.
We arrived in Cleveland just after lunch and satisfied our hunger at the Airport Grocery, which is a rustic “eat place” that includes pool tables, farm antiques, a bar and even blues music on certain days. The grilled catfish was excellent.
The Mississippi Grammy Museum, located adjacent to the Delta State university campus, is a high tech music mecca where visitors learn, experience and are just blown away by music of all types, especially the music of Mississippians. The museum exceeded expectations. Check out www.grammymuseumms.org, and you’ll see what I mean. The current featured exhibit is about Taylor Swift. If you are one of her fans this is as comprehensive an exhibit about her life and music as you will find.
Afterwards, we drove around the Delta State campus, which looks better than ever. Under the leadership of President Bill LaForge it now has over 3,500 students and is affiliated with the Grammy Museum. Its Delta Music Institute, which is located on campus, offers students the opportunity to learn about and study the music industry. It even offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Entertainment Industry Studies.
Driving back through Yazoo City and points south we marveled at the kudzu-encased trees and structures now looking like randomly placed art installations. As we approached Bentonia we just had to stop by the Blue Front Cafe. Even though I had never been there I had heard about it a few years earlier from some European visitors to the 2014 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson. They said they had heard about a juke joint in Bentonia, and wanted to visit it after the ballet competition one Friday evening. I can now see why.
The text on the Mississippi Blues Trail marker in front of the place reads in part as follows:
“During the 1980s and ’90s the Blue Front Café began to attract tourists in search of authentic blues in a rustic setting. In its early years, the café was a local gathering spot for crowds of workers from the Yazoo County cotton fields. Carey and Mary Holmes raised their ten children and three nephews and sent most of them to college on the income generated by the café and their cotton crops. The café offered hot meals, groceries, drinks, recreation, entertainment, and even haircuts.
The Holmes family operated under a tangled set of local rules during the segregation era. The Blue Front was subject to a 10 p.m. town curfew, but at the height of cotton gathering and ginning season, the café might stay open 24 hours a day to serve shifts of workers around the clock. The Blue Front could not serve Coca-Cola, however, nor could black customers purchase it or other items reserved for whites anywhere in Bentonia; African Americans were allowed only brands such as Nehi and Double Cola. Still, white customers regularly bought bootleg corn liquor at the back door of the café. After integration, the Blue Front boasted its own Coca-Cola sign.
Music at the Blue Front was often impromptu and unannounced. The café seldom advertised or formally booked acts. Many itinerant harmonica players and guitarists drifted through to play a few tunes, but at times the musical cast included such notables as Skip James, Jack Owens, Henry Stuckey, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), and James “Son” Thomas.
Musicians also performed at Carey Holmes’s outdoor gatherings on the family farm, which later evolved into the Bentonia Blues Festival, sponsored by Jimmy Holmes. Jimmy Holmes’s first two CDs, released in 2006 and 2007, were recorded at the Blue Front, perpetuating the music he learned in Bentonia from Jack Owens and others.”
Now on this lazy, now sunny, afternoon we pulled up and parked in front of the cafe. Sitting on a bench in front was a man whom we soon learned was none other than Jimmy “Duck” Holmes himself. We went inside to the vacant juke joint where we sat and talked with him almost an hour and each enjoyed a cold beer. We marveled at his guest register which had names and comments from visitors from all over the world.
In the words of Carol, “Such a nice man. Such a nice day! Home before dark. Can’t wait to be a tourist again!”
» Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.