Helena, Arkansas Project

Helena is located in Phillips County, Arkansas. In 2011 the Pryor Center began conducting video interviews with former and current residents of Helena. They told stories of Helena in its heyday as a thriving, diverse community and international port on the Mississippi River. Cotton cultivation, bustling sidewalks, busy shops for every need, slot machines in the drugstores, traveling minstrel shows, and religious groups as diverse as the population made Helena one of the largest, most exciting cities in Arkansas. Phillips County was home to seven Confederate generals, and Helena was the site of the Battle of Helena on July 4, 1863. Large-scale cotton industries that were reliant on black sharecropping and slave labor sustained the economic engine of the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas. Over the past century, racial tensions, the great Mississippi flood of 1927, mechanized, industrialized cultivation of agriculture, and the recruitment of labor by northern cities in the United States contributed to a declining population.

Helena's music venues incubated the blues genre and the longest-running, and still running, blues radio program in the world, King Biscuit Time, which helped plant the seeds for rock and roll. The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival remains the premier blues festival in the world.

The Pryor Center began interviewing musicians and recording symposia at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 2015. Eric Gorder, whose photography is featured in the slide show on this page, had been recommending attention to the festival for nearly a decade before the Pryor Center was able to attend.

When Pryor Center staff arrived at Bubba’s Blues Corner on Cherry Street in the fall of 2015 to determine interview space and set equipment, blues historian Donald Wilcock was there. He graciously accepted the offer to sit in the interviewer's chair that year, and he returned to the chair in 2016. Collaborations with Eric and Don continue.

King Biscuit Blues Festival


Call and Response Blues Symposia


Arkansas Memories Project

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