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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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Bobby Rush performing at King Biscuit Blues Festival
Bobby Rush performing at King Biscuit Blues Festival Photo: L.R. Chin / KBBF

King Biscuit Blues Festival

The King Biscuit Blues Festival began in 1986 as a one-day musical tribute to the blues roots of Helena, Arkansas, and to one of the most famous blues musicians who made Helena his home, Sonny Boy Williamson. Respect for the blues artists and love of the music have been the festival's driving force since it began. For the first festival, artists Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Frank Frost, and Sam Carr, Cedell David were booked because of their contribution to blues and their ties to Helena, rather than if they could draw a large audience. This philosophy has continued, even as this free festival has grown much larger, bringing international recognition to Helena and its musical legacy.

When King Biscuit Time started broadcasting in December 1941 with Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood Jr., it reflected the musical scene in Helena at that time. The live radio program enjoyed a huge following, and was listened to religiously by many aspiring musicians-some who would become famous. The name of the festival was suggested by Dr. Bill Ferris, a noted blues historian and head of the University of Mississippi's Center for Southern Studies. King Biscuit Time was sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, a product of the Interstate Grocery Company. Sonny Boy is also featured on Interstate's Sonny Boy Corn Meal package, which became the basis for the festival logo.

Festival founders, Bubba Sullivan and Jerry Pillow, in 1985 decided to explore the possibilities of producing a blues festival in Helena. Since neither one had ever organized an event of such large scope, they pulled together all the blues lovers or "music maniacs" they knew. They formed the Sonny Boy Blues Society, which books the blues artists for the festivals.

The festival, owned by the nonprofit Main Street Helena, has been a fund raiser for Helena's Main Street City Project. The goals of the Main Street program are to preserve the downtown area and revitalize and economically restructure the downtown area to compete with shopping centers and other economic forces. Festival proceeds have helped Main Street Helena become self sustaining.

King Biscuit Blues Festival has been successful due to the community's 650 volunteers. Toward the late 1990s, Helena, a town of 7,500 people, has been hosting 100,000 festival attendees. In 1999, more than 89 blues societies were represented at the festival, often learning from Helena how to put on their own blues festival.

During the festival, a temporary campground opens in the Mississippi River Park, and is managed by the city's fire department. Campground proceeds of up to $20,000 go to the fire equipment fund. Many of the same festival-goers return each fall to Camp City, and have their own self- proclaimed "Camp Mayor."

Documentation comprises first-person, text accounts (three) on the festival's legacy, two photo discs holding more than 200 images, and four video cassettes with footage from the 1989, 1992, 1994, and 1998 festivals.

Originally submitted by: Blanche Lincoln, Senator.

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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