This squat, cinderblock building in Yazoo County is the oldest active juke joint in the state of Mississippi. There’s no stage—those brave enough to pick up a guitar in such a storied juke stand on the floor or sit in a chair to play. There are no real windows either, making midday feel like midnight. Faded photos and memorabilia lining the walls bring blues legends long-deceased back to life, and show the cafe’s proprietor, GRAMMY Award®-nominated Jimmy “Duck” Holmes—one of the last of the Bentonia Bluesmen—aging backwards.
Jimmy’s parents opened Blue Front Cafe in 1948, the year after his birth, to help supplement their income from cotton farming. They sold bootleg corn whiskey, deviled eggs, and buffalo fish (a sweet, freshwater fish popular in the upper Delta) to folks working the massive cotton gin next door. On occasion, they’d also host impromptu performances put on by the constant stream of bluesmen traveling up Highway 49 toward Chicago. Jimmy (nicknamed “Duck” for his waddling gait as a child) came of age in this environment, helping his parents run the cafe while learning Bentonia’s unique style of blues, with its trademark drop-tuning and—even by blues’ standards—the distinctly mournful chords it produces. Bentonia bluesmen don’t play with picks; they’ll tell you their fingers are tough enough from childhoods spent cutting them on cotton bolls.
Regular blues performances at Blue Front made it an unofficial stop on the Blues Highway, so much so that shortly after Jimmy took over in 1970, renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax—whose field recordings of Delta blues musicians throughout the middle of the twentieth century helped bring Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Lead Belly to prominence—made several recordings in Blue Front.
Recent years have been a bit of a rollercoaster. Jimmy picked up a GRAMMY Award® nomination for his 2019 album Cypress Grove which brought more notoriety to the Bentonia school of blues, but the pandemic has upset the regularity of performances. Shows are back to a more-or-less impromptu basis, but if you show up and hang out long enough when Jimmy’s there (and he’s always there), he just may pick up a guitar and start strumming anyway.