The Clifton Gin was a large building that loomed over the West End neighborhood of Hernando, Mississippi where many blues musicians lived and played their trade in nearby jukes. The Rev. Robert Wilkins, Gus Cannon and Jim Jackson all lived in the area for a time, and Mississippi Joe Callicott was from nearby Nesbit, Mississippi. Now each year, the city of Hernando commemorates that musical legacy with an event called the Front Porch Jubilee, held on the grounds of the historic gin, as part of Hernando’s larger Water Tower Festival. This year’s jubilee honored the legacy of the late R. L. Burnside, and members of the Burnside family were presented with a plaque. Performers included Jack Rowell and Triple Threat, Desoto County native Kenny Brown, who was mentored by both Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, Duwayne Burnside, Lightning Malcolm, rockabilly legend Travis Wammack, and R. L. Burnside’s grandson Cedric, performing with Trenton Ayers as the Cedric Burnside Project. In addition to the great music, there was a considerable amount of great food too, including some excellent pulled pork and the homemade ice cream from Senatobia-based Bliss. A warm afternoon turned to a chilly evening, but a stalwart crowd of about a hundred stayed to the end of Cedric’s last set. It was a great day of blues in Hernando.
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.
Those who know me know that I love New Orleans brass band music. Given the fairly short distance between Memphis and New Orleans, it seems odd that we so rarely have an opportunity to hear authentic brass bands in our area, but on the rare occasions that they do come up here, I try to be there. The Rebirth Brass Band is really the band that picked up where the original Fairview Brass Band left off, and made sure that the photo-revival of brass band music in the 1970’s would be permanent and not merely a footnote of history. Their performance at the Main Stage at Helena’s King Biscuit Blues Festival was absolutely perfect. The breezy, warm night was a perfect setting for an outdoor show, and brass band music is intended for outdoor settings. The crowd was literally standing room only. And Rebirth played all of the hits for which they are famous. Before it ended, people were standing up and dancing in the aisles.
63-year-old Robert Finley is from Bernice, Louisiana, near Ruston, and is well-known to the people in the Monroe, Louisiana area where he often performs. But he never made a record until his recent debut Age Don’t Mean A Thing on the Big Legal Mess subsidiary of Fat Possum Records out of Oxford. The Fat Possum imprint started with blues artists, and slowly seems to be heading back in that direction, having signed the 83-year-old Leo Bud Welch a couple of years ago for his debut album, and finding a similar artist in Finley.
This year’s King Biscuit Blues Festival found Robert Finley performing on Cherry Street in downtown Helena and signing copies of his new debut album, which I highly recommend.
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.
Helena, Arkansas is a town that the years have been cruel to. As Arkansas’ only Mississippi River port in the modern era, it should have been a successful city, and was once home to large industries such as Chicago Mill and Lumber and Mohawk Tire. But industries began to leave in the 1970’s, and the population of Helena and its neighbor to the west, West Helena both declined precipitously. By the time the two cities merged, they barely had 10,000 people together, and the community largely looked desolate. Crime and blight were the rule rather than the exception, and Helena’s large downtown was mostly vacant. A casino across the river in Mississippi did not halt the slide, nor did Clarksdale’s tourist renaissance that followed the opening of Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But for one week each October, Helena becomes the most important city in the world for blues, as the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes over the downtown area near the river. The crowds that pour into the city come from all over the world, and the festival tends to bring attention to neighborhoods that are usually forgotten. As official parking fills up, blues fans head further south, into a old and struggling neighborhood called Beautiful Zion. Like so many African-American neighborhoods in the Delta regions along the Mississippi River, this community takes its name from a church in the area, and the church has been actively involved in efforts to rehabilitate the community, which sits in the shadow of an old cotton compress. On the Friday night of King Biscuit week, the community was in a festive mood, with a lot of people outdoors in the warm weather, and members of the church out selling food plates to festival goers. A woman called my attention to the church’s After School Program in a neighborhood building, and asked me to take a picture of it, which I did. But a block to the north, along Missouri Street, was a string of abandoned buildings that seemed to have once contained night clubs and/or restaurants. Some of the buildings had roofs that were caving in, and I was amazed at the extent of the devastation and lack of preservation effort. Despite a long history of blues music in Helena, the city has just not seen the kind of renewal that is occurring in Clarksdale, Mississippi, some 30 miles to the southeast.