Jack Owens, along with his friend Skip James was one of the players from their home town of Bentonia who used minor key tunings in their guitar playing, which gave it quite a different feel to the dark tones of the classic Delta Blues heard further north in Clarksdale. Jack didn’t use falsetto vocals like Skip, but his high tenor voice was typical of the ‘Bentonia school’, using a ‘melismatic’ singing style. Tommy Johnson was one of the wandering players from the south of Mississippi who took this style north to Clarksdale,where players like Robert Johnson would incorporate elements of the ‘Bentonia’ style into their Blues.
Jack was born in the town of Bentonia in 1904, and music was little more than a hobby as he earned a living as a farmer and bootlegger, but he ran a juke-joint in the town for most of his adult life. Jack was also proficient on piano and fiddle as well as guitar, and sometimes he would blow a flute with a ‘fife and drum’ combo. He shared many qualities with Skip James, but while Skip went north in 1930 to record for Paramount Records, Jack was reluctant to leave town. He continued as a farmer, just playing at weekends, until he was ‘re-discovered’ in the Folk/Blues revival of the 60s. Jack’s minor-key guitar playing and loud, foot-stomping delivery spoke of a man at home in a noisy juke-joint, as evidenced in the recordings made by Dr. Dave Evans of the University of Memphis
, which eventually emerged on the album ‘Going Up the Country’ in 1970.
Alan Lomax filmed Jack and Bud on the back porch in 1978;
Jack Owens Discography
Rare and expensive on vinyl and unavailable on CD, this MP3 collection gives a good selection of Jack’s work, with Bud Spires on harp.
IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE DEVIL
Further recording sessions followed, with Jack accompanied by harp player Bud Spires, and the results were released on the album ‘It Must have Been the Devil’. The Blues Festival circuit gave Jack more exposure than he had gained in 50 years of playing juke-joints back in the Delta, and he appeared several times in Europe, usually with Bud in tow. He played at the Long Beach Festival in 1994 when he was approaching his 90th
Birthday, and passed away in Yazoo City in 1997.