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Mississippi's Blue Front Cafe: 72 years of blues and still going strong

Lici Beveridge
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

In 1948, Mary Holmes saw a need and decided she and her husband Carey Holmes would fill it.

Black workers at the cotton gin in the heart of Bentonia, a town that sits on a stretch of U.S. 49 in Yazoo County, Mississippi, needed a place to eat and relax after a day's work.

The Holmeses opened the Blue Front Cafe in a small building next door, where Mary Holmes would cook and sell food while her husband and children worked on the family farm.

The Holmeses occasionally booked entertainment, but most of the performances were impromptu. Blues musicians would stop and play for tips any time of day or night before moving on to the next joint. 

People gather at the Blue Front Cafe, the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi, to hear live music as part of the 2018 Bentonia Blues Festival.

The venue gained a reputation among musicians, with such noted musicians as Nehemiah "Skip" James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Jack Owens and James “Son” Thomas.

Blue Front Cafe still has a reputation among musicians, and many well-known blues artists like Cedric Burnside, Trenton Ayers, Nick Wade and Willie Farmer still perform at the venue.

"It reminds me of the time of real 'jukes,'" Ayers said. "Kinda reminds me of performing in Mr. (Junior) Kimbrough's."

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Owens and James were Bentonia natives, and played their own style of music named after the town. Bentonia blues has its own distinct sound, which they learned from another Bentonia guitar player, Henry Stuckey.

Jimmy "Duck" Holmes (right) practices guitar with his 13-year-old grandson, E.J. Fox, at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia.

In 1970, the Holmeses retired and son Jimmy "Duck" Holmes took over the Blue Front Cafe, keeping the down-home style cafe and impromptu concerts flowing. 

The Grammy-nominated Holmes, who is college-educated as well as a musician, promoted the cafe's image as the oldest still-running juke joint, and blues enthusiasts from around the world flocked to Bentonia to get the juke joint experience.

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He said he tries to stay humble — and realistic — and keeps the Blue Front as authentic as possible for guests to enjoy, even if he doesn't make a lot of money from the venue.

"My momma set me down and told me, 'Boy, there will come a time when you think you'll get rich at the Blue Front, but that ain't guaranteed,'" he said. "This place has had its ups and downs."

The Blue Front Cafe has been in operation since 1948, one year after blues musician Jimmy "Duck" Holmes was born. Holmes, the son of the original owners, has run the Bentonia juke joint since 1970.

Renowned ethnomusicologist  Alan Lomax, who had traveled the country recording American folk music since the 1930s, visited the Blue Front in 1977, which helped bring even more fans to the cafe, but there have been times when the bottom has fallen out.

Yet Holmes said he keeps the juke joint going, and plans until he no longer is able.

David Evans, another ethnomusicologist and professor at the University of Memphis, like Lomax had recorded the older musicians at the Blue Front to document its history and the Bentonia style of blues.

"I don't know if (Evans) had a vision, but that was a treasure," Holmes said. "Because without him and Alan Lomax … it would have been lost. They preserved it."

Travelers from all over the world still flock to the Blue Front, believed to be the oldest still operational juke joint in the country. Holmes added an annual music festival celebrating the blues, held each year mid-September.

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After the cotton gin closed, Holmes decided to buy the building and was in the process of renovating into an additional Blue Front music venue. Those plans were waylaid in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic caused many businesses to close.

The Blue Front remains open in a limited capacity and held its annual Bentonia Blues Festival by streaming it live on Facebook.

Contact Lici Beveridge at 601-584-3104 or lbeveridge@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @licibev or Facebook at facebook.com/licibeveridge.