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.

Historic Remains of Duncan, Mississippi

I had recently come across a company called Southern Coffee Roasters on social media. They are based in Lexington, Mississippi, and I found that the nearest retail store to Memphis selling their products was a supermarket in Cleveland, Mississippi called Vowell’s, so when I left the Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival, I decided to head down to Cleveland, buy some coffee, have dinner and then head back to Memphis.

My path took me down Highway 61, and so I decided to head into Duncan, a community I had often seen from the road, but never ventured into. What I found was a village of beautiful houses, with some historic downtown buildings, but much has been abandoned. Even the old Town Hall, which looks quite historic, is abandoned and vacant. Even so, I found some great photos to shoot in the little village, and then headed on my way to Cleveland.

In Cleveland, after picking up my coffee at Vowell’s, I had intended to have dinner at a place call Sea Level Oyster House, but to my shock, I found it closed permanently. It had only opened in November of last year, and didn’t make it six months. Nearby, a restaurant called Backdraft was open, but the menu items were fairly expensive, and I decided that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so I returned to Airport Grocery, where I often go for a good steak or burger when in Cleveland. A waitress there explained to me that Sea Level had been shut down abruptly because they sold alcohol to minors. What a shame.

On the way back, I stopped in Winstonville, because it seemed like something was going on. Cars were everywhere, and people were standing out on the sidewalks by the hundreds. It was only with difficulty that I was able to enter the little town, and when I did, I found that it was Winstonville Homecoming, when people from the town return from all over the country. Although lots of people were out, and certain streets were roped off, there did not seem to be anyone performing, so I headed on up the road to Shelby, hoping that something might be going on at the Do Drop Inn. Nothing was, and in fact, it was locked and dark. So I gave up on finding any live music, and headed back to Memphis.

Remembering Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry at Merigold, Mississippi

Although a few of my friends expressed concern and disapproval of the name of Merigold, Mississippi’s Po Monkey Day, the event was organized for the first time last year to honor the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, who was the owner of the legendary Po Monkey Lounge just outside the town of Merigold. This year’s festival was somewhat hampered by outrageous heat, with the heat index by some accounts near 114 degrees. Still, a hundred people or so showed up in downtown Merigold near Crawdad’s Restaurant to hear from musicians such as Lightnin Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, R. L. Boyce and Super Chikan. Cedric performed a new single called “We Made It” from his forthcoming LP Benton County Relic which is due out in September. Toward the afternoon, storms approached, but they never really developed near the festival area, and things never really cooled off at all. After R. L. Boyce’s performance, with every table in Crawdad’s reserved because of the festival, we headed down to Airport Grocery in Cleveland instead, and not only was the food good but so was the all-blues soundtrack. Airport Grocery was once a live blues venue when it was on Highway 8, but since it has moved onto Highway 61, it doesn’t seem to book live music, or at least not as much. As for the legendary Po Monkey Lounge, we learned this week that our hopes that someone might purchase and preserve the historic juke joint were in vain. The contents will be sold at auction next month, and presumably the building will be demolished.

Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers at The Blue Biscuit

After leaving Alligator, we ended up heading down to Drew, and taking Highway 49W through Ruleville, Doddsville and Sunflower into Indianola, to one of my very favorite restaurants in the world, The Blue Biscuit. The Biscuit is owned by renowned chef Trish Berry, who had been the executive chef at Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman’s ill-fated Madidi Restaurant in Clarksdale. While Madidi was expensive fine-dining, the Blue Biscuit is something altogether different, sort of a cross between a diner and a juke joint. While the restaurant menu is diverse and varied, in my opinion, the pulled-pork barbecue is the star of the show. A few years ago, it was possible to order something called “Biscuits and Barbecue”, which was exactly that, four freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits that were halved, with pulled pork placed between the halves. This was literally one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, we noticed on this visit that the menu has changed, and that biscuits and barbecue is no longer available, but the pulled pork is still on the menu, and just as good as I remember it from previous visits.
An added treat on this visit was live music from a Cleveland, Mississippi band called Jake and the Pearl Street Jumpers, whose repertoire consists of blues, soul and funk. Somehow, I had not encountered them before, but they are an accomplished and versatile band, and they kept the crowd mesmerized all evening. This was my first time seeing a live music gig at the Blue Biscuit, and I found the location and atmosphere perfectly suited to the music, and everything quite enjoyable.

Coffee, Cupcakes and More at Crave Bistro in Cleveland MS

Finding espresso and cappuccino has never been easy in the Mississippi Delta, but it is getting easier thanks to the opening of new coffee bars like Crave Bistro in Cleveland, Mississippi. As the name suggests, Crave is not only a coffee bar, but also a full restaurant open for breakfasts and lunches, and it also features a selection of sweets and desserts, including cupcakes. I tried a chocolate one, and found it irresistibly delicious, if a little messy (eating them in your car is NOT advised). Crave closes at 5 PM, so get there early!

3/7/09: Rap Conference in Leland

I had been asked to speak at a music conference in Leland, so, although winter weather was being predicted for Memphis, I headed out driving down Highway 61, stopping in Cleveland at a coffee bar called the Bean Counter. Further down the road in Greenville, the weather was grey and overcast, yet warmer, and after driving around the nearly-deserted downtown area, I stopped at Gino’s Hamburgers for lunch. McCormick’s Book Inn was already closed for the day, so after I bought a few books at a flea market, I drove down historic Nelson Street, filming the juke joints and R.I.P walls with my flip video camera, and then I headed on out to Leland. The music conference was in the National Guard Armory at Leland, and it was strangely hot and stuffy inside the building. I was surprised to see Donnie Cross and Charlie Braxton there when I got inside, and we spent some time catching up before I spoke to the crowd. Then, with rumours of bad weather to the north, I told the organizers that I needed to head out, and I drove northward into Cleveland, where I stopped for dinner at the Airport Grocery. When I came back out to my car, the rain was falling as sleet instead, and I began to worry about making it home. At Clarksdale, with no coffee bars available, I stopped at McDonald’s and bought a latte, which, if not as good as Starbucks, would at least serve the purpose. At Tunica, road conditions began to severely deteriorate, and I had to go rather slowly on I-69, which was largely elevated roadway. Where 69 joined with 55, there had been a huge accident in the lanes headed toward Tunica, and the highway patrol had shut down the road. Once I was in Memphis proper, however, there was more rain than sleet, and I got to the house safely, if exhausted.