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.

A King Biscuit Daybook: Mookie Cartwright & Friends on Cherry Street

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos
New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

After the Rebirth Brass Band performance, I walked back through the crowds on Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Many of the vendors were beginning to take down their displays for the night, but there was still a lot going on. At an outdoor performance spot, a group of younger blues musicians was performing, and it was actually really good music. A sign nearby explained that the group was Mookie Cartwright, Josh Parks and Friends. I am not sure who any of them were, but presumably, they are local Helena area artists. After checking them out for a moment, I stopped in Southbound Pizza nearby for a pepperoni and bacon pie before making the drive back to Memphis.