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Delta Cultural Center Shows Mississippi River's Influence

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Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
    Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
    Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exterior of the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
Exterior of the Delta Cultural Center, Helena
May 7, 2002

Delta Cultural Center Shows
Mississippi River's Influence


Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

An expansive view from its Helena shoreline offers proof enough: the Mississippi River is a prodigious force of nature. More than waters wide and often treacherous, however, it is the river's pervasion of history and culture in the land it leveled that explains why the stream is an American legend.

From upstairs in the Delta Cultural Center's restored 1912 railroad depot at 95 Missouri Street in downtown Helena, visitors can see the Mississippi's waters; in exhibits throughout the depot and in two nearby, restored storefronts, they can experience the river's thorough reach into natural and human affairs.

The Delta, the name commonly used for the river's alluvial plain, covers more than 15,000 square miles in eastern Arkansas, including all or part of 27 of the state's 75 counties. Across the 250 miles stretching from Louisiana on the south to Missouri on the north, the land's elevation varies only about 150 feet. With poor drainage and deep soils deposited by the Mississippi and its tributaries, most of the region was, at the time of pioneer settlement, lowlands and swamps, rich in virgin timber and wildlife.

Some two centuries later, most of the Delta is agricultural. Its soils produce voluminous crops of soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat, and only remnants of the original wetlands are left. The changes that swept and transformed the region, as well as the circumstances and cultures of the peoples who have inhabited it, are chronicled in the Delta center's exhibits.

Through each display, in one way or another, runs the Mississippi. The river shaped the lives of Delta inhabitants by determining the geographical character of the land, by defining its economic uses and thereby contributing to social practices such as human slavery and sharecropping, by bringing recurring disasters, and by linking the Delta and the world beyond.

Exhibits in the center's depot cover such topics as the region's Native Americans, the first European explorers, early pioneers who hunted and trapped the abundant wildlife, the lumbering that cleared land, the agricultural history of the region, the growth of Delta towns and the steamboat and railroad eras. They contain many interesting details about Delta history and life.

Displayed in an exhibit entitled "Old Man River" is a September 1927, National Geographic article about the Great Flood of the Delta's rivers the preceding April. It recounts: "At noon the streets of Arkansas City were dry and dusty. By two o'clock mules were drowning in the main streets of that town faster than they could be unhitched from wagons." The levee had broken upstream.

While cotton, the Delta's first major agricultural crop, remains strongly associated with the region in the public consciousness, the exhibit on agriculture reveals it had been surpassed by soybeans as early as 1960 and rice by 1975.

Exhibits on the Civil War, located on the depot's second floor, reveal that control of navigation on the Mississippi and the importance of the region's cotton to the South's economic fortunes were major factors bringing the conflict to the Delta. Visitors can learn about the July 4, 1863 Battle of Helena and look out at the high ground of Crowley's Ridge where Union artillery batteries were located. The war exhibits recently earned the cultural center a place on the Civil War Discovery Trail, a heritage tourism initiative of the Civil War Preservation Trust.

One block north of the depot, the center's two storefronts at 141-143 Cherry Street house temporary exhibits as well as permanent exhibits on the music of the Delta.

An exhibition of paintings by Delta artist DeWitt Jordan will be on display through December. Included are commissioned portraits, landscapes and thematic scenes. Jordan, who grew up in Helena and eventually settled in Memphis, gained regional fame in the 1960s, and in the early 1970s achieved national recognition in Newsweek and Time magazines for his thematic and historical works.

The center's next major temporary exhibit, to be displayed from May through April 2003, will recount the Great Flood of 1927. This year marks the flood's 75th anniversary.

The Delta's many contributions to the blues, gospel, rockabilly and country genres are traced in the center's permanent music exhibits. A 10-minute film takes visitors to Helena's annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, held each October, and individual listening stations allow them to hear recordings that relate stories about and include the music of various performers.

One such recording reveals that in 1934 folklorist Alan Lomax discovered the song "The Rock Island Line" being sung by prisoners at what was then Arkansas's Cummins State Prison Farm. Lomax recorded their version, which can be heard in the center's self-styled "sound bite." The tune later became a hit for country music's Johnny Cash, an Arkansas native, and was also a big hit in England in the 1950s. It thus became one of the first songs John Lennon, the future Beatle, learned to play on the guitar.

The exhibit "Blues from the Arkansas Side" contains photographs and biographical information on many of the Delta's legendary blues performers, including Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood, "Pine Top" Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, Robert Nighthawk, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Albert King, Johnnie Taylor and Son Seals.

Visitors can also experience what amounts to a living exhibit as "Sunshine" Sonny Payne hosts live broadcasts of his "King Biscuit Time" blues show on KFFA radio on weekdays from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. The show premiered in 1941, featured live music through 1965, and continued through 1980 with recordings. It returned to the air in 1986 and has been broadcast since. Payne has hosted more than 13,000 shows. In 1992, King Biscuit Time was awarded the prestigious Peabody Award.

A gospel music exhibit, "Sing It! Tell It! Shout It!," provides information on such gospel stars as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Al Green, the Martins and Kevin Davidson. An interactive video program offers performances and interview clips featuring various gospel artists.

The cultural center created and coordinates the Arkansas Delta Family Gospel Festival, which will mark its second year on May 25 and 26. Scheduled performers include the Mississippi Mass Choir, Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC's, Reverend Gerald Thompson, the Myles Family and Davidson.

A museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Delta Cultural Center opened its doors in 1990. It reopened in 2000 after a yearlong, $4-million expansion and renovation project that included the installation of all-new exhibits.

The center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. Regularly scheduled, hourly tours are offered, as is special programming for large and small groups (advance notice required). Among other activities, the center serves as an archive for Delta information, conducts research and sponsors periodic symposia on aspects of Delta life.

Additional information on the center and its special events is available by phoning toll-free 1-800-358-0922 or by e-mailing The center's web site address is


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