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Blues Music Key as Main Street Promotes Helena's Downtown

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Main Street Helena
Main Street Helena
    Main Street Helena
Main Street Helena
Mississippi River Bridge at Helena
Mississippi River Bridge at Helena
    Blues Exhibit, Delta Cultural Center
Blues Exhibit, Delta Cultural Center
June 25, 2004

Blues Music Key as Main Street
Promotes Helena's Downtown

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

(Editor's Note: The following is one in a series of features on cities participating in Main Street Arkansas, a section of the state's Historic Preservation Program that provides technical assistance and design services to help foster economic development in downtown areas. This year marks the program's 20th year of service to Arkansas towns.)

HELENA -- In the Blues Corner music specialty store at the south end of Cherry Street in downtown Helena, a large map indicates the international drawing power of the town's King Biscuit Blues Festival. Colorful pins mark the hometowns and countries of residence of many who have attended the annual event.

"There are a lot of pins on that map," the store's proprietor, Bubba Sullivan, observed recently. "People have come to the King Biscuit from all over the world."

In its inaugural year of 1986, the festival attracted an estimated 18,000 visitors and, perhaps more importantly for its future, a favorable review in The New York Times. In 1993, it was the subject of a lengthy news segment on the Cable News Network (CNN). Within a few years the four-day event was drawing 120,000 eager fans. "We had no idea," Sullivan said, "that it would become what it is today."

Joann Smith, a former Helena alderwoman and mayor, echoed Sullivan. "The festival began as a downtown promotion," she said, "but it spread Helena's fame nationally and internationally."

An instrumental player in the festival's founding was Main Street Helena, then a newly-created arm of a state downtown development program. Sullivan and other blues aficionados, who organized themselves in 1988 as the Sonny Boy Blues Society, asked for Main Street's aid in staging the event. It was a partnership that lasted for more than a decade, though the festival, set for Oct. 7-9 this year, is now managed solely by the blues society.

Of the many programs originated across the state by local offices of Main Street Arkansas to promote downtowns, no other has achieved a wider reputation than the Helena festival. Because, when Main Street came to Helena, it met the blues: a cultural asset with a strong local history and already possessing an international audience.

Positioned where the high ground of Crowley's Ridge reaches almost to the banks of the Mississippi River, Helena has enjoyed a long and celebrated history. Steamboats made the community a regular port of call soon after they began navigating the mighty river in 1811, and in 1833 Helena became the second town to incorporate in Arkansas Territory, preceded only by Little Rock. It produced seven Confederate generals and its control was contested in a significant Civil War battle. Wealth accumulated in the small town as harvests from woodlands and agricultural fields in the surrounding Delta region poured through Helena to the world beyond. Times were good along Cherry Street, downtown's main street.

By the 1930s, Helena was becoming a hotbed of a new genre of music freshly birthed in the Delta landscape of Arkansas and Mississippi by combining the "field hollers" of workers picking and chopping cotton with other influences such as spirituals and minstrel songs. The town sported numerous juke joints and cafes where blues artists played to packed houses. In 1941, local radio station KFFA premiered the "King Biscuit Time" blues radio program with live performances featuring Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins and other blues pioneers. It is now the world's longest running blues radio show.

Eventually, though, the music and the downtown economy began to fade. In 1984, concerned city officials enlisted Helena as an early partner in the state's Main Street program, which assists participating towns with preservation and economic development efforts in their historic cores. Smith said she and then-Helena Mayor Thad Kelly had learned of the program while attending the annual convention of the Arkansas Municipal League.

Working with the Helena Advertising and Tourist Promotion Commission, an early Main Street Helena effort was creation of a brochure detailing a driving tour that led visitors to antebellum homes, magnificent Victorian residences and five churches -- all architectural treasures produced during the town's celebrated history. A Cherry Street building was purchased, renovated and used for the local program's offices.

According to Smith, Main Street Helena has spent considerable effort in its 20 years shoring up downtown Helena's aged buildings. Aiding those efforts have been grants from the federal Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development departments. Federal transportation funds financed renovation of downtown sidewalks, Smith said.

A recent downtown improvement, Smith said, is a nicely landscaped "pocket park" on Cherry, named in honor of former mayor Kelly. Another is a permanent performance stage that will serve as the main stage for the King Biscuit festival and other annual events, such as the Wild Hog Music Fest and Motorcycle Rally held in late April and the Arkansas Delta Family Gospel Festival held on the Saturday before Memorial Day.

While the blues festival briefly brings blues devotees and casual fans enjoying the sound of wailing guitars and heartfelt vocals, downtown Helena has other attractions the remainder of the year. Ashley Buckalew, current director of Main Street Helena, said collectors enjoy its six antique shops. And for blues fans, there's Sullivan's store and the interactive music exhibits that are a part of the Delta Cultural Center, a museum of the state Department of Arkansas Heritage.

The center contains exhibits that explore the natural and human history of the Delta region of Arkansas, a part of the Mississippi River's vast alluvial plain. Additional information on the center and its exhibits can be obtained by visiting or phoning toll-free 1-800-358-0922. More information on the King Biscuit Blues Festival can be found at

Among downtown Helena's other attractions are the Helena River Reach Park, with a shoreline view of the Mississippi River from an elevated boardwalk; the Phillips County Museum at 623 Pecan St.; and the large collection of antebellum and Victorian homes, including three that operate as bed and breakfast inns and the 1896 Queen Anne Pillow-Thompson House, which is open for tours.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

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