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The first weekend in October, the quiet Mississippi River town of Helena-West Helena (Phillips County), about seventy miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, becomes a thriving community of blues musicians and their fans, gathered to celebrate the the King Biscuit Blues Festival. As the event grows, it not only hosts its own music but also unique figures, food, clothing, and even currency.
The festival grounds now lie along a levee, but during the early years, the festival was held on the back of a flatbed truck in front of an old train depot, which is now a museum and the site of the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street. Cherry Street, which parallels the Mississippi River, is a National Historic District and the historic commercial center of Helena. What began in 1986 as a one-day event with a crowd of 500 was, by the late 1990s, a three-day event with more than 100,000 people attending. The festival has remained free and has drawn blues enthusiasts from around the world. Despite Helena’s declining population, hotels and motels have few vacancies on festival weekend.
Besides providing a longer time for musicians, vendors, and attendees to enjoy this event, the festival now sprawls well beyond its initial 1986 boundaries. By 2005, there were four stages. Musicians are booked not only on the main stage but also on ones that include gospel choirs and artists who perform more traditional Delta blues. One stage is called the Houston Stackhouse Stage in the morning and the Robert Junior Lockwood Stage in the afternoon, each named for a local blues legend. At the opposite end of the street is a stage that attracts gospel groups throughout the Delta. The festival squeezed in yet another stage, between the acoustic and main stages, for alternative music.
All along Cherry Street are vendors selling their blues-related crafts and food. The festival also hosts a barbecue competition. Throughout the area are festival volunteers who make available free programs and a map of the stages and vendors.
The event frequently attracts blues musicians who play on street corners and can be heard throughout the grounds. Scattered among the vendors lining Cherry Street are artists who manage to plug their amps into a shop’s outlet, allowing them to perform as small crowds gather and folks toss coins into hats. Up and down the street, visitors can catch glimpses of well-known blues artists, perhaps even a politician (Governor Mike Huckabee has frequented the festival and even played bass guitar one year) or a mime troupe. Bicyclists compete in a morning race before the crowds become too big.
The first day (Thursday) culminates with the announcement of local blues awards given to performers who competed prior to the festival. The festival’s climax is on Saturday night, when a renowned guest artist performs. By then, veteran musicians have performed, such as Lockwood, who is also a guest on the King Biscuit Time blues radio program, which airs out of the Delta Museum every day at noon on KFFA-AM, 1360. Sonny “Sunshine” Payne is the program’s announcer and usually interviews Lockwood and others in the festival’s lineup. It is the longest-running blues program in the country, and Payne has hosted it since the 1940s. The festival took its name from the radio program until 2005, when the festival’s organizer, the Sonny Boy Blues Society, announced that the name would change to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival because the New York firm that owns the rights to the King Biscuit name wanted too much money for its use. However, in 2010, the management of the festival succeeded in regaining the use of the name.
To promote both music and a local product, KFFA began airing live broadcasts featuring local musicians, such as Sonny Boy Williamson, a harmonica player whose style epitomizes Delta blues. Classic festival T-shirts display Williamson sitting on a bag of King Biscuit Flour with harmonica in hand, an image that has become emblematic of the festival.
Payne often hands out the awards to young musicians and legendary artists, such as “Pinetop” Perkins, a regular, or Sam Carr, who appeared on the radio program in its early days. Others include “T-Model” Ford, Frank Frost, Luther Allison, Big Jack Jackson, John Weston, Billy Lee Riley, Anson Funderburgh, Di Anne Price, and Vickie White.
In the early twenty-first century, the festival began including panel discussions on the importance of the blues and the role radio has played in it. In 2001, the Delta Cultural Center hosted such a panel, which was scheduled just before Payne’s program. At the cultural center, visitors may view a film loop that includes parts of past festivals while hearing Payne interviewing a guest or playing a song on his program. His radio booth is partitioned off from passers-by, but the live show is easily accessible to guests.
In addition to storms and occasional equipment failure, each year brings a surprise or two. In 1998, Governor Huckabee, a Baptist minister, married a couple on the main stage a year after they had met at the previous year’s festival. Huckabee humorously noted the irony of his performing a sacred event on a blues stage, an arena meant for the secular. During another festival, a strong wind knocked over a huge inflated Budweiser can next to the main stage, which organizers repaired as thousands watched. In 1996, Luther Allison continued playing as he left the main stage and meandered up and down the levee wirelessly amplifying his guitar licks while photographers snapped pictures and the crowd went wild.
The festival attracts people from all walks of life. Despite changes in the music and the occasional non-traditional sound, as Payne once said, “Sooner or later they all come back to it.”
For additional information:King Biscuit Blues Festival. http://www.bluesandheritagefest.com/ (accessed February 13, 2013).
Koon, David. “Fighting over a ‘Biscuit.’” Arkansas Times. February 23, 2006.
Rotenstein, David S. “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.” Southern Folklore 49 (Summer 1992): 133–146.
Webb, Robert Fry. “We Are the Blues: Individual and Communal Performances of the King Biscuit Tradition.” PhD diss., Florida State University, 2010.
Richard Allen BurnsArkansas State University
Last Updated 2/21/2013
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