Jack Owens was born November 17, 1904, in Bentonia, Mississippi, the son of Celie Owens and a man named George Nelson. "When I was growing up," he said, "I fooled around on the guitar. My old folks had a guitar and I would drag it around when I was crawling. When I got to crawling on the floor, dragging the guitar, the strings would break, and I just crawl and crawl. The old folks could play. My uncle, Will, he was a head player, but all of them could play. And I played around and played around until I learned. I stayed in the cotton patch in the fields, and I just kept playing."
Soon Owens was able to play songs and, in time, taught himself to play blues. He supported himself as a sharecropper farmer by day and as proprietor of a small country "juke house" at night. On weekends, he'd clear the furniture out of one room of his house (where he had a jukebox) so that people could dance, and in another room his wife, Mabel Owens, sold sandwiches and drinks. For a time, he sold bootleg whiskey, but eventually was able to get a liquor license.
Owens operated his juke house only on weekends. After people arrived, he'd unplug the jukebox, get out his guitar, and sit down with Benjamin "Bud" Spires, his harmonica player. Together, they'd perform old country blues, such as "It Must Have Been the Devil," a favorite among people in his community of Bentonia. "They'd be here every night," he said. "But I told them don't come till Friday evening. Some of them come in every now and then through the week. I get my stuff on Friday evening. Get a hog or goat or something like that and kill him and sell him there, barbecue and make sandwiches out of it. The jukebox, that belong to me. You see, I got it rented here. I don't do too much playing when it's going, you know. I turn it off and play sometimes. Yessir, we have plenty fun up here. Start on Friday evening and run till over Sunday night."
For years, Owens was the only regularly performing musician in Bentonia. He played a kind of blues that was at once personal and traditional and representative of a local style. He shared many lyrics, melodies, and guitar figures with other blues musicians in the area — from older bluesmen like the Stuckey brothers, Adam Slater, Rich Griffin, and his father and uncle to his contemporaries, Skip James, Cornelius Bright, and Bud Spires. Of these, James is probably the most well known, as a result of his recording for the Paramount label as early as 1930.
The Bentonia style developed, apparently in isolation, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta between Jackson and Yazoo City. It is characterized by high melismatic singing and complex melodies, as well as by minor-keyed intricate guitar parts and often haunting lyrics with themes such as loneliness, death, and the supernatural.
Owens groomed Bud Spires (born May 20, 1931) as his harmonica player. Spires, the son of Chicago bluesman Arthur "Big Boy" Spires, is nearly blind and learned to play the chromatic harmonica after Owens bought him one in the early 1960s. He accompanied Owens with a droning chordal style that complemented the overall country blues sound. Although Owens and Spires were invited to perform at festivals around the country, they preferred to play mostly for their own community in the Bentonia area.
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal agency