On Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and Ambassadors from a Different World

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On Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and Ambassadors from a Different World

Back on April 7, 1973, I still retained my amateur status. I wasn’t yet a professional music critic, and I stood on the sidewalk outside Georgetown University’s McDonough Arena, waiting to get in to see Bonnie Raitt open for Little Feat, with a ticket in my pocket that I had paid for with my own money. A station wagon pulled up and parked; soon a roadie was pulling out guitars and amps and handing them to people to carry in to the arena. I impulsively grabbed a guitar and followed the crew inside.

I set the guitar down in Raitt’s dressing room and tried to look like I belonged there so I wouldn’t get kicked out. She wasn’t there, but her duo-mate Freebo was and so was her special guest, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. He was only 67, but he seemed centuries old sitting there in a plastic folding chair with his dark suit, gray afro, long legs, dignified bearing and mischievous smile. “Son,” he told, “fetch me a glass of that whiskey.”

I did as I was instructed, and that’s how I ended up sharing some whiskey with a musical legend. We talked, not about anything important, mostly about how hard the four-hour bus ride had been from his home in Exmore, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore and how he didn’t get to play as much as he’d like to anymore. But that half hour spent in his company has always stayed with me, not for what was said but for his presence.

I knew who he was, of course. I knew he had grown up in segregated Mississippi, had moved to Chicago as a young man and had recorded a series of big hits for the African-American community of the mid-’40s. One of those hits, “That’s Alright, Mama,” was the song where Elvis Presley first found his sound at Sun Records in 1954. “If I had any ambition,” Presley later said, “it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup.”

Crudup’s was a life so unlike anything I had ever known and with such great consequences that he had never seemed quite real. But here he was, an ambassador from a vanishing world, enjoying his whiskey and complaining about the bus, as real and human as anyone in my own family and as serious an artist as any of my rock ‘n’ roll heroes. It gave me a connection to other decades and other communities that I could never have acquired from books and records alone.

I slipped back into the audience and found my friends. At the end of her set, Raitt said, “Let’s bring out Mr. Arthur Big Boy Crudup. Let’s hear it for the man who started it all. My part of the show is over. You should realize what a heavy occasion this is. This is the man who wrote ‘That’s Alright, Mama,’ ‘Mean Ol’ Frisco,’ ‘Look Over Yonder’s Wall.’ He’s it. Take your lesson in the real thing.” She sang all those songs with him, and she seemed to marvel at his achievement as much as Presley had.

Less than a year later Crudup was dead. I took up a career as a music critic and got to hear many aging legends. I even got to talk to some of them: Doc Watson, John Lee Hooker, Ralph Stanley, Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. All are dead now, and every year it seems there’s less opportunity to meet artists from a time when music-making was rooted in a specific community defined by hard work and hard times. It’s all show biz now.

I was reminded of all this when I heard Jimmy “Duck” Holmes perform at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Holmes is only 68, but he never released his own album till he was 59. As a result, he remained embedded in Bentonia, Mississippi, absorbing the town’s one-of-a-kind blues, passed down from Henry Stuckey to Skip James to Jack Owens to Holmes. With its unconventional E-minor tuning and forlorn warbling vocals, both derived from the Bahamas, the Bentonia blues sound like no other.

Holmes inherited the local juke joint, the Blue Front Café, from his sharecropping parents, living a life little changed from a hundred years earlier. But he’s more than just a link to the past; he’s a terrific songwriter and singer. He proved as much in New Orleans as he answered interviewer Scott Barretta’s questions and illustrated his replies with songs from his brilliant new album, It Is What It Is.

Wearing a red baseball cap with a blue bill and a black-and-white-striped shirt, the tall, wiry bluesman sat in a chair with his Epiphone acoustic guitar on his right thigh, picking out a haunting melody that seemed to leap up and then collapse on itself over and over.

“Somebody loan me a pencil and a piece of paper,” he warbled, “so I can write to that little girl of mine. I ain’t got no telephone, but I got my baby on my mind.” With great economy, he established an easily visualized scene of a poor man surrounded by friends, asking for help in a time of distress. “She left me one summer morning, didn’t even tell me the reason why,” but he’s still trying to contact her and coax her home.

On the new album, that song is followed by the title track, which boasts a hypnotic toggling between a high, pretty phrase on the guitar and a lower, despairing drone. “You told me your love for me was strong,” he sings, “but I wonder, ‘Where has that love gone?’” He asks that question as if it stands in for every question that could be asked about the gaps in life between what was promised and what was delivered. “After all these years,” he concludes with devastating finality, “it is what it is.” After that, there’s nothing to add but the loneliest harmonica solo you’ll ever hear.

Sitting up in the seats at the New Orleans show was Mississippi’s Dick Waterman, Raitt’s original manager. He has come out of retirement to work with Holmes, one of the few remaining representatives of an era when localized blues and hillbilly musicians could make music designed not for careers but for catharsis. It was music that inspired many famous careers, Raitt’s not the least of them, but where will the inspiration come from when that old-time music is gone?

Bob Dylan once said that what made him different from so many of the songwriters who followed him was that he was able to meet those old-timers and observe firsthand how they conducted themselves. Every year there are fewer chances to do that, so when they come along, they should not be missed.

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