The King Biscuit Blues Festival and the Decline of Helena


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.

Blues In The Grove At Oxford

001 Doc Prana Trio002 Doc Prana Trio004 Doc Prana Trio005 Doc Prana Trio006 Doc Prana Trio007 Doc Prana Trio008 Zediker Brothers010 Oxford Blues Fest011 Oxford Blues Fest012 Oxford Blues Fest013 Oxford Blues Fest014 Zediker Brothers015 Oxford Blues Fest016 Oxford Blues Fest017 Oxford Blues Fest018 Oxford Blues Fest019 Oxford Blues Fest020 Zediker Brothers021 Zediker Brothers022 Oxford Blues Fest023 Oxford Blues Fest025 Bobby Ray Watson026 Bobby Ray Watson027 Bobby Ray Watson028 Bobby Ray Watson029 Bobby Ray Watson030 Bobby Ray Watson032 Bobby Ray Watson033 Oxford Blues Fest034 Bobby Ray Watson035 Sherena038 Bobby Ray Watson039 Oxford Blues Fest040 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones041 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones042 Joyce Jones043 Joyce Jones044 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones045 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones046 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones047 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones048 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones049 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones050 Joyce Jones051 Bobby Ray Watson052 Sherena053 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones054 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones056 Bobby Ray Watson & Joyce Jones057 Oxford Blues Fest058 Bobby Ray Watson059 Oxford Blues Fest061 Cadillac Funk062 Cadillac Funk063 Cadillac Funk064 Cadillac Funk065 Cadillac Funk066 Cadillac Funk067 Cadillac Funk068 Cadillac Funk069 Cadillac Funk070 Cadillac Funk071 Cadillac Funk072 Cadillac Funk073 Cadillac Funk074 Cadillac Funk075 Cadillac Funk076 Cadillac Funk077 Cadillac Funk078 Cadillac Funk079 Cadillac Funk082 Cadillac Funk & Joyce Jones083 Cadillac Funk084 Sherena Boyce085 Joyce Jones086 Sherena Boyce & Cadillac Funk087 Joyce Jones & Cadillac Funk088 Sherena & Cadillac Funk089 Sherena & Cadillac Funk091 Cadillac Funk & Sherena Boyce & Joyce Jones092 Cadillac Funk093 Cadillac Funk094 Cadillac Funk095 Como Mamas097 Como Mamas098 Como Mamas099 Como Mamas100 Como Mamas101 Como Mamas102 Como Mamas103 Oxford Blues Fest104 Oxford Blues Fest105 Puppy Love106 Puppy Love107 Blind Mississippi Morris108 Blind Mississippi Morris109 Blind Mississippi Morris110 Blind Mississippi Morris112 Oxford Blues Fest1623 Doc Prana Trio1625 Zediker Brothers1627 Oxford Blues Fest1630 Bobby Ray Watson1632 Cadillac Funk1634 Joyce Jones & Cadillac Funk1636 Sherena Boyce & Cadillac Funk1638 Como Mamas1640 Blind Mississippi Morris
The Oxford Blues Festival was not held on the Square this year, as I would have expected, but rather on the Grove on the Ole Miss campus, and a good thing, since the entire Mid-South was under a heat advisory and the sun was beating down fiercely. Perhaps as a result, when I first got there, the crowd was rather small, and that despite the fact that the festival was also free. But as the day progressed, from the jazz of Doc Prana, to the bluesy rock of the Zediker Brothers, to the folk blues of Bobby Ray Watson (who had studied with Mississippi Joe Callicott), the crowd grew steadily in numbers and enthusiasm, and ever so slowly the heat began to subside. Female blues singer Joyce Jones was in the audience, and was called up on stage by Bobby Ray Watson and by Cadillac Funk to feature on a couple of songs. Then the Como Mamas came on stage to do some a cappella gospel numbers, and the afternoon was closed out by Blind Mississippi Morris as the sun was setting. Although there was a headline act for later in the evening, the people I was with wanted to head back to the Square for dinner. Despite the outrageous heat, it was a fun day of blues in a beautiful, shady setting.

Keep up with the Oxford Blues Festival:
http://oxfordbluesfest.com
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oxford-Blues-Festival/149263388461540

Keep up with the Zediker Brothers:
https://www.facebook.com/TheZedikerBrothers
https://thezedikerbrothers.bandcamp.com
https://www.youtube.com/user/randomiteversion2

Keep up with Cadillac Funk:
http://www.cadillacfunk.net
https://www.facebook.com/cadillacfunkband

Keep up with the Como Mamas:
http://daptonerecords.com/comomamas/
https://www.facebook.com/thecomomamas

https://thecomomamas.bandcamp.com

Keep up with Blind Mississippi Morris:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Blind-Mississippi-Morris/180262462022644
https://myspace.com/blindmississippimorris











Blind Mississippi Morris & Frank Moteleone-Old Black Mattie-Live at @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark


Clarksdale/Memphis traditional bluesman Blind Mississippi Morris performs at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park during the first day of Bristerfest in Memphis, 4/27/13. Of interest here is to note how the more familiar lyric “Coal Black Mattie” (as performed by R.L. Burnside) is changed by Morris into “Old Black Mattie”, perhaps intentionally, but more likely from oral tradition. Occasionally, another variation, “Poor Black Mattie” is encountered as well from certain singers.

Blind Mississippi Morris Live at @Bristerfest @LevittShell @OvertonPark

Clarksdale native Blind Mississippi Morris lives in North Memphis, and is just about the only traditional country bluesman active in Memphis these days. He has recorded a couple of albums, including 1988’s You Know I Like That on Select-O-Hits‘Icehouse Records, and is a frequent fixture on Beale Street, one of the few true bluesmen to appear there regularly. His set at Bristerfest was largely traditional, assisted by guitarist Frank Monteleone, in front of a crowd that had begun to grow after the rain had largely ended.