Jimmy “Duck” Holmes slung his jacket over the back of his chair and sat down with his Epiphone guitar in front of a microphone and an audience of about 40 people who were mostly white and, at least that day, mostly his students. Holmes had ironed a crease in his jeans, put on an orange polo and perched his shades on the brim of his black fedora.
“Let’s go,” he said, and opened the gates to a river of blues that flowed across the old barracks floors the U.S. Army had built 111 years ago when Holmes’ grandparents labored in fields some 2,500 miles to the southeast. One by one, the soles of Chaco sandals and Converse sneakers, Birkenstocks and thrift store cowboy boots were possessed by the beat, and pounded Holmes’ tune into those old wooden boards.
Mary Hilts, program manager for Centrum’s Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival, said Holmes is, “A deep-roots folk blues musician who plays in the tradition described as American-primitivism: A repetitive and monotone style that is ethereal, gritty and rough.”
Holmes is the proprietor of one of the oldest juke joints in Mississippi, the Blue Front Café in Bentonia on the Mississippi Blues Trail. His parents, who were sharecroppers, opened the Blue Front Café in 1948, a year after he was born.
“He is as authentic as it gets,” Hilts said of Holmes.
Hilts had a hard time tracking Duck Holmes down after she discovered his music through her scouting research.
“I asked Mississippi blues artist Terry ‘Harmonica’ Bean if he knew Jimmy, since they lived near each other in Mississippi and were in the same business,” Hilts said.
Bean told her, “He won’t answer the phone. You’re going to have to come down here and ask him yourself.”
So, Hilts traveled from Port Townsend, Wash. to do just that. When she asked Holmes to teach during the blues festival, he shared his philosophy on education by saying, “The fruit won’t fall from the tree unless you water it.”
In building 204 at Fort Worden State Park, in the evening on the first of August, Holmes sang a song about a fruit tree as he nourished the imaginations of his students about what is possible even when there’s no sheet music, automatic tuner, right or wrong words.
“Woman, if you didn’t like my apple,” Holmes asked in a voice that somehow both cut and soothed in its timbre. “Why you keep shaking my tree?”
“When I’m playing, all I’m concentrating on is life itself,” Holmes said following his performance. “I change when my heart tells me to change. It’s just like life. Life is not the same every day. That’s why I play the blues. I play the blues according to the way I feel.”