Like all of Eastern Arkansas, Helena had seen better days by the late 1970’s, but the worst was yet to come. When the Mohawk Tire Company decided to close its West Helena plant in 1979, the local economy completely collapsed. While both Helena and West Helena had about 10,000 people each in 1980 or so, by the time they agreed to merge in 2003, they barely had 12,000 people together, and merger was fraught with so many roadblocks that they could not agree to name the resulting city “Helena”, but rather the unwieldy name of “Helena-West Helena.” Nowadays, the only real income generator for the area is tourism, and tourism is pretty much limited to one week of the year, the October week of the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Unfortunately, this year’s King Biscuit festival left a lot to be desired. For one thing, Arkansas’ veteran bluesman Cedell Davis died unexpectedly, leaving a vacancy in the lineup. Secondly, with no apparent irony, under a heading that proclaimed the festival as the “real deal”, were pictures of this year’s headliners- J. J. Grey & Mofro, Government Mule and Tab Benoit, hardly a triumvirate of blues musicians, to say the least. But what I noticed this year more than last year was the extent of abandonment, decay and devastation in Helena, particularly downtown. Although many buildings on Cherry Street have been restored, the bulk of them are largely vacant. Crowds thronged the street of course during the festival, but it was largely to go to and from the stages, or to patronize the food trucks and temporary vendors. Things were even more devastating along Walnut Street, the street where the barbecue festival was going on. North of the festival area were eviscerated buildings, and an abandoned motel whose rooms were largely open to the wind and cold, one wall of which had been turned into a mural in honor of the late Cedell Davis. Even finding something to eat other than a food truck took some doing, although last year’s Southbound Pizza had turned into a slightly-more-upscale place this year called Southbound Tavern, and the local coffee bar Bailee Mae’slocation behind the Lockwood Stage on Rightor Street made it a popular place for festival-goers. Odder yet was the difficulty I encountered in finding any roots blues music around the festival. Blind Mississippi Morris was playing on a stage at Walnut Street to a small crowd, but the best blues of the evening was actually to be found in a small square called Thad Kelley Square along Cherry Street, located on the footprint of a demolished building, where Taildragger and others performed to a moderate but enthusiastic crowd. Unfortunately, when I returned to my car, I found that it had been entered and rifled through, although nothing actually appeared to be missing.
Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.