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Whistling Past The Graveyard: Helena Celebrates Amidst the Ruins

The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas is one of the United States’ major blues festivals. But time has not been kind to Helena, which due to a drastic loss of population merged with its neighbor West Helena to form a city with the unwieldy name of Helena-West Helena, because the residents of the two former towns could not agree on a shared name for the merged community. A former riverport, Helena in the early 1960s became dependent on factories, especially the large Mohawk Tire Company plant. When that closed in the late 1970s, the heart was ripped out of the city’s economic base. Population plummeted; crime increased. Buildings, especially along historic Cherry Street began to deteriorate. I had noticed this increasing deterioration on visits to Helena over the years. Things seemed far more desperate in 2017 during the King Biscuit Festival. Not only were there abandoned buildings around, but my car was broken into.

But nothing prepared me for the degree of desolation that I saw in 2022. Apparently, in part caused by a tornado, more buildings on Cherry Street have collapsed or become unstable. Businesses and restaurants I had seen in 2017 are now closed. Bailey Mae’s Coffee Bar, which had been such a nerve center for King Biscuit in previous years is closed, and so is Southbound Tavern, which has turned into something called Que & Brew. The buildings behind the Sonny Boy Williamson II historic marker are abandoned and in a shambles.

Amidst the bombed-out, apocalyptic landscape, a festival was going on, but the effect was somewhat surreal. Helena is practically a ghost town now, and West Helena is not that far behind the same end, and trying to have a party amidst all the ruin and devastation just seemed sort of like the proverbial whistling past the graveyard.

Most of the authentic blues at King Biscuit Blues Fest nowadays is relegated to the smaller, backstreet stages away from the main area. The one that featured Lady Trucker with her band and Garry Burnside was in the walls of an abandoned structure a block off of Cherry Street near an abandoned movie theatre. Hearing what sounded like a Hill Country guitarist nearby, I walked down a block and found Ms. Australia “Honeybee” Neal playing on another stage next door to the ruins of an abandoned motel, and I also ran into Clarksdale musician Sean “Bad” Apple there. Blind Mississippi Morris came up after Garry Burnside and performed a good set of traditional blues.

But Cherry Street was a shell of its former self too, with not even half as many vendors as were present in previous years, and smaller crowds, despite the beautiful and fairly warm weather. The wonderful Blues Corner record store at the end of the street has also closed, as its owner died during the COVID pandemic.

Helena is a Delta town, and Delta towns have not fared well anywhere, with the partial exception of Cleveland, where the presence of Delta State University has made a significant economic impact. But still, Helena has a fair number of historic buildings, and a storied past which includes blues and even rock and roll. Famous drummer Levon Helm who played with Bob Dylan and The Band was born in Helena. But the community seems to lack the leadership with vision that have guided Clarksdale, Mississippi into a renaissance. Around 1983, nobody would have thought that Clarksdale could bounce back, but it has happened, and there is no reason it could not happen for Helena too. But the way things seem to be going, there may soon not be a festival or even a town at all.

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