I spent the day yesterday listening to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. I just love the Bentonia Blues style. I was reworking a few of the stories in Flamingo Funeral and what better choice for background music? So I thought I’d do something a little different today. Following is a blog I wrote shortly after the book was released and I unexpectedly ended up talking to Jimmy “Duck” Holmes on the telephone. The blog explains how that happened. Following the blog, I have included the scene from Flamingo Funeral that I used “Duck” as a character. In the scene he is playing the Skip James song Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, so I’ve included it here in the blog. I hope y’all enjoy!
A Conversation with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes
There are some days we just look back and say, “Dang! That was a great day!”
Yesterday was that kind of day for me.
Here’s how it went. I have one New Year’s Resolution – get organized (which will, of course solve all my problems.) I have dedicated my morning hours to promoting Flamingo Funeral & Tales from the Land of Tea Cakes and Whiskey. I was researching the Mississippi Blues Trail as it is a great dream of mine to possibly set up a small book tour along the trail as blues music is an integral part of many of my stories
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is considered by some to be the last of the great blues musicians to play in the Bentonia style of blues. I listened to his music to set the stage of the bar scene in which Mr. Holmes is a character in my novella, Flamingo Funeral. I thought if I could find an address for his fan club, perhaps I would send a copy of the work with the hope he would learn he had a fan who had included him in a book.
The website for the Blue Front Cafe is modest, as is the Blue Front Cafe. It’s history, however, is fascinating and detailed on the Mississippi Blues Trail website.
I dialed the number and told the man on the other end I was an Alabama writer trying to find some information on Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, to which he replied, “Yeah, this is Jimmy “Duck”!
Ok. There are (everyone can tell you this) very few times in life when I am rendered silent. But for a moment, just a moment, there was dead air on the line.
What followed was a twenty minute conversation – I’m going to say not one-sided – about his music, old blues music, growing up in the South, when he last played in Alabama, the Bentonia Blues Festival, I think the fact that Gregg Allman covered Skip James on his last CD, how cold the weather is and yes, about the fact that I have a new book out and you Mr. Holmes are a character in it.
He asked me about the book and I told him a little about the bar scene in which he is playing. He seemed to get a kick out of my having him play the Skip James’ song, Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, in the story.
Here’s an idea of what it’s like to talk with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
As I write this, there is a copy of Flamingo Funeral off to Mississippi and I am planning a trip to the Bentonia Blues Festival the third week in June to meet Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.
And if I’m lucky, maybe he will sing a little Hard Time Killin’ Floor & Devil Got My Woman. And if I’m real lucky, just maybe he’ll take a pic with me and the book.
Now, that is what I call a damn good day!
Excerpt from Flamingo Funeral
Memories of my brother Jim made me laugh out loud when I recognized the old, black juke joints he and I haunted when we were in high school. I had never felt afraid in those places because everyone knew Daddy and wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me or my brother. We were accepted for what we were – poor white kids who liked to drink, listen to good blues music and had a gun-carrying, crazy-ass father who would kill anyone who messed with his kids.
I could hardly believe some of these places were still standing, especially Duke’s. But there it was, rusty roof and broken down porch overgrown with kudzu just as it had been in the mid-seventies. Two men in beat up, dusty overalls lounged at one end of the porch drinking a clear liquid from mason jars and smoking cigarettes. Duke was known for his signature moonshine, which he called Peachy Pearl, as it had the distinct flavor of peaches and went down “smooth as a pearl.”
The last time I had been at Duke’s Juke Joint was just after high school graduation. It was a hot May evening and Jimmy Duck Holmes was going to play at Duke’s. Duck and Duke were old friends, and Duck was particularly fond of Peachy Pearl. I had been looking forward to that night all week and had even passed on a graduation trip to Panama City Beach, Florida. Jimmy Duck Holmes was known for playing the Bentonia style of blues created by Skip James and Jack Owens, both Mississippi blues players. It was a style that had a haunting, country sound, and I loved to listen to songs like Devil Got My Woman and Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues by Skip James. Daddy had a collection of Delta blues records. There was nothing I liked better than running the extension cord out to the front porch and listening to those old records. I had never heard Jimmy Duck Holmes, but I knew if he was anything like Skip James, it would be a fine night.
Jim and I had gotten to Duke’s early to get a good seat. Jimmy Duck was as good as I had hoped and had already begun his second set when Gus burst through the front door with his usual assortment of strong-arm misfits. Gus owned the mortgage on Duke’s and had decided to call in the note that night. He staggered over to the bar and put his pearl-handled pocket pistol on the counter while his crew positioned themselves by the front door. I slunk down as far as I could into the booth praying that Gus wouldn’t see me.
Jim pulled his frayed University of Alabama cap down low and whispered, “Get ready to run like hell, Sis.”
Duke Grimsley was not one to be bullied by a crooked businessman like Gus. He had known Gus since they were children and Duke’s father had worked as a sharecropper on the family farm. Duke must have seen this day coming from the time he signed the loan papers on the bar and had been waiting for the first opportunity to beat Gus at his own game.
Gus, his hand resting on top of the pistol, proclaimed, “I’m here to settle up, Duke. I hate to have to do it, but times being what they are, I’m gonna have to call in that note old buddy. I know we can work out some kind of arrangement for you to stay on here and run thangs for me.”
Gus flashed a sly, empty smile devoid of emotion or empathy.
Duke pulled his shotgun from behind the bar and put it on the counter. “Gus, jes settle on down, now,” he said calmly. “Set on back and let ole Duke po you a drank. I gots somethin you need to see ‘fore you shoot up da place.”
Gus downed the shot of whiskey Duke poured for him. “Alright,” he grumbled. “What is it?”
Duke reached under the bar and put some papers in front of Gus.
“What the hell is this?” Gus growled, pushing the papers back toward Duke without even looking at them.
“You knows what it is. You knows you signed this place over to me in that poker game las week.” Duke shook his head. He leaned into Gus and said, “Now don’t be sayin you don’t remember. I been knowin you a long time, Gus. A long time. You knows and I knows what’s right.”
Duke poured Gus another shot. Gus looked around at the bar full of people now staring at him and grunted, “Humph.”
Everyone in the place was frozen as if in a photograph. Most of the people there owed money to Gus or had kin that did. No one would dream of intervening.
Duke nodded toward Jimmy Duck, and he began to play Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues, a superb choice, I thought.
Gus picked up the shot glass and tipped it at Duke before downing it and slamming it back down on the deed papers. He picked up his pistol, put it back in his front pants pocket, got up from the bar stool and stumbled back out the front door.
“Son of a bitch!” Jim shook his head and laughed. “Duke, that’s the coolest damn thing I ever saw.” He stood up, took off his cap and gave a gentlemanly bow toward Duke.
Duke scowled. “Sit your white ass down ‘fore I tell yo Daddy you been in here ever night this week!” He picked up the deed papers from the bar and started folding them up. He indulged a momentary smile before putting them back under the counter and retaining his usual stern no-nonsense stance. That remains the only example I know of Gus ever coming out on the shallow end of a deal.
Hope you enjoyed the excerpt and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes. Drop me a comment and let me know what you think. More on Bentonia Blues next week.