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.
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:
Keep up with Blind Mississippi Morris:
Blind Mississippi Morris performs his version of a Slim Harpo tune at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis, 5/4/13
Blind Mississippi Morris performs for the crowd at Bristerfest in Overton Park after the rain ended on Saturday, 4/27/13
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.