Munnie Jordan is 78, and Bubba Sullivan is 80, and together, they carry a good part of the economy of Helena, Arkansas, on their shoulders.
The director and founder of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, respectively, they both feel the country’s current crisis personally as it hammers the historic town they love.
B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Buddy Guy, among other blues luminaries, have performed at the rollicking three-day music festival that has been held every October since 1986. The festival, briefly brings 30,000 people to a town that now is home to only 10,000 after decades of decline. But due to COVID-19, 2020’s festival was cancelled, delivering a harsh economic blow to the city.
It’s cautiously “on” for 2021, as Jordan tries to navigate any possible competition from a re-scheduled Jazz Fest in New Orleans. The KBB lineup includes Allman Betts, Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues with special guest Bobby Rush, and Mavis Staples.
“I have a passion for community and for things not to be forgotten.” said Jordan, slender, carefully coiffed and a force of nature. “How old do you think I am?” she asks – an unanswerable question in most situations but OK in this one, because she looks like she’s 20 years younger than her actual age, and knows it.
She tried to retire three times, and each time returned when the festival needed a bold fundraiser. It has a $825,000 annual budget, about $400,000 of which comes from sponsorships.
Both she and Sullivan – who is more the public face of the festival and the person with the long-term blues connections — had a scare when he turned up positive for the virus a few weeks ago. He sailed through it, but on the night he got the diagnosis, he found himself thinking of his grandfather’s death of a heart attack, in a farmhouse. That happened when Bubba was a boy. “I heard him through the walls, moaning,” he said.
The doctor was too far away in this rural part of Arkansas. Planted on the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta, Helena is about an hour from Memphis, Tenn.
The Festival Begins
The King Biscuit Blues Festival was formally launched in 1986 to not only give an economic boost to the area, but to also to bring renewed pride and appreciation of its unique musical history.
Well, eventually it had that purpose. In the beginning, Sullivan said, in the 1970s, it was a bunch of guys that liked to drink and listen to music. Many of them were Vietnam Vets. First, locals drove up in vans to listen to local musicians, and the organizers charged a dollar each for a share of the chicken they cooked.
“We finally went into a field and we cooked 1,000 pounds of chicken,” he said. “We charged $10.”
Over the years, Sullivan, has spent a lot of time talking to blues greats like Robert Lockwood Jr., the only guitarist known to have played with Robert Johnson. “He would tell me stories,” Sullivan said. And if Lockwood needed a ride home from somewhere late at night, Sullivan obliged.
Then there was the time he did business with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. (“He had his beard tucked into his shirt.”)
Sullivan spent $927, he said, to bury Jimmy Rogers, who had played with Muddy Waters. He sent the money up to Chicago after he got the call that Rogers had died without a penny to his name.
Before the pandemic, Sullivan spent so much time on the phone talking to old blues buddies in the King Biscuit Blues office, Jordan told him to take the phone calls across the street to The Tavern.
A Stone’s Throw From The Mississippi
Helena is steeped in Delta blues history. In the 1930’s, the historic downtown Cherry Street area was filled with juke joints, tiny music clubs, like the renowned Hole in the Wall, where blues icon Robert Johnson played.
In 1941 radio station KFFA launched King Biscuit Time, the earliest and longest running radio show dedicated to the blues, which won a Peabody in 1992. DJ Sonny “Sunshine” Payne was King Biscuit Time’s host from 1951 until his death in 2018; the lunchtime show continues to this day, broadcast from the Delta Cultural Center on Cherry Street. Regular performers on the show included Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins with visits by Howlin’ Wolf, among other blues legends, current artists like The War and Treaty, Bette Smith and Jimbo Mathus are played along with the classics.
The Mississippi Delta is considered one of the most economically distressed regions in the country. Phillips County is an agricultural region with primarily corn, soybean, wheat and cotton farmlands. Tiny commercial strips with one-story brick buildings and a gas station, some abandoned, dot the rural county, as do of small residential clusters. Helena-West Helena, as it’s officially called after the two cities merged, has a shrinking population, 77% Black and the median household income is $22,000.
Helena-West Helena scores 98.5% on the nonprofit Economic Innovation Group’s (EIG) Distressed Communities Index, based on factors like poverty rates, education levels, vacancy rates and the number of unemployed of prime age adults, among others.
The Better Days In Helena
In 1986, the festival went formal and in town, launching with the King Biscuit Blues name. Sullivan bought a building on Cherry Street in town and opened an antiques shop that sold blues records. At its peak, the store had 10 employees.
A year after the festival moved to town, CNN did a feature about it as part of its Across America series. It was a different time. Mohawk Rubber announced it was leaving in 1978. But still, in the mid 1980s, almost no one could imagine that another wouldn’t come eventually to replace it, or that chains outside the downtown would pull energy from small businesses, or that the casinos across the River would do wreak their havoc on individuals’ lives.
When the festival began, it was one of many things the city had going for it. Now, it’s the biggest thing. The three-day festival spans multiple stages; Jordan, describes it as a “pilgrimage” for Delta blues lovers. She estimates it draws 30,000 to 40,000 festival goers from within the U.S., Europe and beyond, even as far as Japan.
Based on a 2019 survey, Jordan calculates that if 10,000 visitors stay four days in Helena for the festival, $2.4 million is infused into the city’s business ecosystem, from restaurants to hotels.
“It’s like Christmas in October,” says Jordan Yancey, owner of the apparel boutique Bella, about the festival’s impact on her business, “KBB has been our bread and butter for the whole year.” Yancey buys extra inventory in preparation for the festival week, often keeping annual repeat customers in mind. “This year was really hard,” notes Yancey, “we need the festival.”
Nearly all businesses housed in Helena’s historic brick buildings lining Cherry Street have been impacted by the cancellation of the festival due to COVID. The loss of business has been felt at Sullivan’s Bubba’s Blues Shop, and the sprawling secondhand store Myrna’s Klassic Kollections, among other downtown taverns and eateries. Visits to Helena throughout the year, often a stop on any Delta music-centered tour by bus or Mississippi River steamships, have also ceased.
What Does The Future Look Like?
Even prior to the festival, tourists will start trickling into Helena in greater numbers with the start of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout underway. But recovery won’t be simple. The town’s situation, which similar to that of others across the country that in the last 30 years tried to replace manufacturing jobs with tourism, is fraught.
Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit that uses data to help address health and social issues, has created the COVID-19 Community Vulnerability Index (CCVI) for the U.S. The CCVI calculates a community’s ability to recover from the consequences of COVID-19 based on seven factors, from socioeconomic levels and healthcare systems. Surgo Ventures rates Phillips Country as being highly vulnerable at .66; 0 being the least vulnerable, 1 being the most vulnerable.
August Benzow, a research and policy analyst at EIG notes that while the King Biscuit Blues Festival is an important tourist attraction and source of revenue for Helena, “it’s not enough to lift residents of the city out of poverty,” he wrote in an email. He points to nearby Memphis, Tennessee, as an example of city that while successfully attracting a high number of music-loving tourists, still has a high poverty rate in parts of the city.
“Based on the available data, it does seem that the area needs additional sources of employment outside of just the tourism industry,” writes Benzow of Helena, “an industry which has suffered substantially during the pandemic.”
One essential and logical step for any economic redevelopment in the historic downtown area, where nearly 40% of the storefronts are empty, is stabilizing the buildings that have fallen into disrepair. “I love these historic buildings,” says John Edwards, General Counsel and Economic Development Officer at Helena Harbor, a 4,000-acre industrial park on the Mississippi River, “but what I love more than the buildings themselves, is what these buildings can do for the people who live in these communities 24/7, as well as visitors.”
“It’s definitely not sexy,” says Edwards about his consistent focus on investing in the county’s infrastructure, like water supply systems, rather than the “fun stuff” as he puts it, such as a new music venue. “You don’t get the fun stuff if you don’t get those basics,” says Edwards, “the distilleries, and the bars, and the restaurants.”
No one has any easy answers, but nobody is giving up, either. For decades, the Mississippi River port attracted companies – and it remains a draw, though the lack of a larger and educated workforce remains a big barrier.
Helena attracted EnviroTech, which produces biodegradable disinfectants. EnviroTech is based in California; in 2015 it set up a production site in Helena Harbor. “A lot of different pieces are needed to make a community successful,” says Edwards.
Edwards adds that a silver lining to the pandemic is the normalization of working from home, which might lead people to have less reluctance to buy property in smaller rural cities. To attract former city or suburb dwellers, amenities are needed, but in order to open a small business, one needs foot traffic, so it becomes a game of chicken and egg – one that’s only likely to be played by people like Jordan, Sullivan or others with emotional ties to the community.
Phillips County Community College in Helena doesn’t have an entrepreneurship program. However, it does offer applied technology certificate programs in trucking, healthcare, welding, cosmetology or computer graphics, according to Dr. Debby King, the vice chancellor for instruction. Some of the certificate students are working independently, starting micro-businesses.
For a majority of the local residents, launching a business is challenging.
The two main obstacles facing would-be entrepreneurs in Helena, is lack of capital and the declining population, according to Jayla Wilson a spokesperson at Southern Bankcorp, a CDFI operating in the mid-South that helps underserved communities. “This was the case even prior to the coronavirus pandemic,” Wilson wrote in an email. Since the pandemic began, Southern Bankcorp closed only 125 PPP loans in Phillips County for a total of $7,609,800, according to Wilson, the average loan was $60,878; the smallest $1,900.
The Right Time To Invest?
A few businesses have opened downtown. The artisanal ice cream shop My Sweets Paradise opened over the summer and the family-owned and operated Delta Dirt Distillery opened in December 2020.
The master distiller is Thomas Williams, who grew up in Texas, but his parents Harvey and Donna are originally from nearby Lee County and recently moved back. “It’s a little slower here,” concedes the son Williams, “but everyone is very friendly and we’ve been embraced.”
Delta Dirt’s first product is a vodka made from the family farm’s sweet potatoes, made available before Christmas. “I sold out the first day,” says Williams. While the Williams don’t have a pre-COVID frame of reference in terms of Cheery Street foot traffic, the Williams are aiming to be a destination establishment, for locals, out-of-towners and tourists on culture or moonshine tours.
“We want to be a catalyst,” says Thomas,” hoping other businesses will follow suit and open on Cherry Street. While there isn’t significant local downtown foot traffic, especially due to COVID, Williams is confident there will be. “They will come downtown,” says Williams, “if there is a reason to come downtown.”
In The Meantime
Jordan and Sullivan know that for now, the festival is the reason. They’re both looking for leaders from the younger generations to step in, to celebrate the music and preserve the town. Sullivan, who says that this generation does not seem to honor the past, is not terribly hopeful. “It really breaks your heart,” he said. “They think they’re so high and mighty. We set the pace for Beyonce and her husband.”
By “we” he means the blues musicians whose music he has listened to and still hears. In lives narrowed by circumstance, they wanted a drink of whiskey, a place to play music and a woman. “I’m on that train to help everyone I can,” he said.
Jordan’s hopeful. She also runs a tour company, one that takes people from the Mississippi cruise ships deeper into Helena, on a soul-food-and-gospel tour.
“The passion I have for this town and festival I have for this country,” she said.
This article was corrected to reflect the current planned lineup of this year’s festival.
This story was produced as part of the Arkansas Reporting Project, focusing on entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. The project was sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation.