It all started when I met Jody, randomly taking pictures in Yazoo County. The people, so many of them, were casually hanging outside of Jody’s “Snack Shop,” so I stopped, and he pointed out the Blue Front Cafe. Well-known from Bentonia music lore, the unobtrusive shack, blocked over in concrete and painted half blue, hovers between railroad tracks and an old cotton gin.
“Come back June 16,” Jody said. “Come back, that’ll be a day.”
And here it is, June 16, and none of my friends are that enthusiastic about a drive to Bentonia. So I guess it’ll just be me and my camera-crutch. If I can hide behind a stealthy black-box, I have validation.
I put on my mom’s vintage peasant skirt and roll down windows. From my car with no AC and fuzzy-folk rushing busted speakers, the summer evening smells sickly-sweet. There’s nothing but corn for miles, and I am connected, like my psyche’s remembering on some genetic level—before my family moved to yuppie-burb, they were from Warren and Neshoba counties. Before they were executives, they were sharecroppers. Before nose jobs and botox, my great-grandfather sold the family car to bring his newest daughter home from the hospital.
I turn off the highway and follow the tracks. Downtown Bentonia is a single block, a grocery store, the joint police station/city hall. But whatever’s going on here tonight, it’s bigger than I expected.
At the sight of a stage and milling people, my artistic ambition pulses. Confidently, I stroll to the front, where some old-timer soulfully moans (I am later informed that these guys have been at it since noon, The Bentonia Blues Festival is an annual event, and the Blue Front’s proprietor, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, has just taken the stage). Frame my shot, focus lenses and—nothing. I slide aside a piece of plastic to reveal an empty cavity. I forgot to bring the battery. Of course. I plop the camera in my car and survey the situation from afar.
Seems as if the whole town’s turned out. One man’s got a BBQ cooker, and ladies are selling homemade snacks off card tables. Back at the stage, I hesitantly begin to dance. Suddenly, there is a small, shyly smiling girl at my side. As she pantomimes my moves, the smile breaks into a full-fledged grin. I grin back, and together, we dance harder, and then she is making up her own moves, and I am pantomiming her. By the end of the set, we are sweaty and giggly, the bottom of my skirt dragging and dusty.
Waiting in line for tropical-ices, I learn that my new friend is Andrill. We link hands walking back, and some guy winks and calls, “Can I hold your hand, too?”
“Gotta be under ten,” I call glibly. Then, suddenly worried, I turn to Andrill. “How old are you?”
She grins. “You’re good. I’m only nine.”
And for the rest of the evening, it’s Andrill and me. Sometimes other kids join us for the dancing, sometimes it’s just us, but it’s definitely us. We’re a team, and I feel blessed, knowing I need this, need to remember that living’s about the living, not about the writing about it later. Andrill teaches me moves that I’ve never attempted, moves involving furious hip action and strange contortions, and I teach her the remnants of seventh grade cotillion. I spin her in, she spins me out, and then she gets the bright idea to dip me, and this is so cute that people actually clap. Then I dip her, only I scoop her up behind the knees and duck her back, river-baptism-style, so that she gets a head rush and squeals.
In between sets, we teach each other handclaps, make up secret handshakes, test for ticklish-ness, and stroll the grounds. She grabs my arm, loops it nonchalantly over her shoulder, reaching up to grasp my fingers. It’s beautifully simple. You see someone you like, decide to be friends, and then you just are. You show them what you know, pay attention to what they know, laugh and stroll hand-in-hand.
Eventually, the music ends, but there’s still people, picking up trash and packing up tables. Andrill finds an unopened bag of chips. We get a group together and invent a game. The big kids look out, going easy on the little ones. Passersby’s are haphazardly thudded with wayward chips . And then, Andrill’s grandma comes to collect her.
The last of the families amble away, and the party relocates to the Blue Front. Someone starts up a jukebox, so we perch on the edge of the empty stage. A guy named Matt starts telling me about King Rails. He’s from upstate New York, and he’s living in a field in Yazoo County, tracking birds for some grad school project. We talk about conservation, which is his passion, and art, which is mine. Then the train comes, and we shut up, plug our ears, and think our thoughts.
By the time I leave Bentonia, it’s 3am. The festival leftovers have trickled out of the Blue Front hours ago, and even the trains have stopped. Everything feels like a set, perfect and unbroken.
I hug Matt goodbye, knowing I’ll never see him again. Silence the music to make room for thoughts and drive into the wee morning air, which still smells of cornfields. This night is sticky and organic. It feels like Mississippi, like, despite nomadic tendencies, I recognize my home.
Photos from Bentonia Blues Fest 2008