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On the American Queen: Helena's blues


When the American Queen docked in Helena, Ark., this morning, I made a beeline for the Delta Cultural Center. Well, as much of a beeline as you can when you're riding a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. The center has a wing dedicated to the history of the blues, in which Helena played a crucial part, and it has the studio from which the King Biscuit Hour, a blues show that dates to 1941, is broadcast every weekday.




Edell guitar2

Sonny statue











Story boards tell the history of the blues and its performers, and the center has a number of memorabilia, including a bust of Sonny Boy Williamson (right), Ellis Cedell Davis's 1954 Epiphone guitar and the knife he used as a slide (left), and Albert King's Gibson "Flying V" guitar.

Helena claims some blues artists as its own and others as having strong ties to the town, including Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins, Ellis Cedell Davis and Levon Helm.

Levon etcHelm (at left on the story board), who grew up in nearby Elaine, used to hang out at the KFFA radio studios, where King Biscuit Time was broadcast, so he could watch Sonny Boy Williamson back when the show featured live music. Helm made his own debut as a teen on the show, and performed a number of times at the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. Helm, best known as a member of The Band, died last week. When I visited, the center was playing a video of him and The Band in his honor.

Sonny payne

"Sunshine" Sunny Payne, who has hosted the show since 1951, was in the studio, preparing for his show and talked to visitors at the center. Payne, who is 87, has had some role in the show -- starting with a mop and broom -- since 1941. The show, which was sponsored from the start by Interstate Grocery Co., maker of King Biscuit flour, is broadcast live on KFFA, but can also be heard on the Internet here. Although most of the music on the show is recorded, it features live music about once a week.

Learn more about the show here, and about the Delta Cultural Center here.