Biscuit Time started broadcasting in December 1941 and helped define
Eastern Arkansas musical tradition. Helena with its many
jukes, clubs and bars had long been a hub for many area blues musicians,
who when they were in town knew they could play with and hear some
of the best players in the area.
When King Biscuit
Time started broadcasting in 1941 with Sonny Boy Williamson and
Robert Lockwood, Jr. it was a reflection of the musical scene that
was current in Helena at the time. The radio program enjoyed a huge
following and was listened to religiously by many aspiring, soon
to be famous, blues musicians.
has ebbed and flowed over the last fifty years with each new generation
discovering the legacy of their musical forefathers. Even though
there had been several rediscoveries of the blues, Helenas
contribution never seemed to earn much attention from the blues
community. It was this exclusion from recognition that was the kernel
for the beginnings of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Recognition
for the artists that helped shape the blues on the Arkansas side
of the Delta was sorely lacking. These performers, which played
in and around Helena, have had a lasting effect on the landscape
of modern popular culture, yet there was little acknowledgment for
There is a group
of musical kindred souls that are bound together by more than just
friendship, the love of the Blues and Helenas musical past
have compelled this group of music maniacs to reach far beyond their
grasp in the blues world.
and Jerry Pillow in 1985 decided to explore the possibilities of
having some type of Blues Festival in Helena. Neither had ever organized
an event of such a large scale so they decided to pull together
all of the blues lovers that they knew in the area. The list is
a long one of all the individuals that responded to call, some of
the most involved were Ray Galloway, George Hays, Houston Stackhouse
Jr., Lonnie Shields, James Morgan, Sterling Billingsley, Mike Harcourt
and many, many more.
Putting on the
first festival was a learning experience for all involved and over
the years has been an incredibly rewarding experience for the vast
number of volunteers. However, the primary focus of the music maniacs,
later the Sonny Boy Blues Society, has been ensuring that the musicians
are treated with the highest degree of respect and that there is
recognition for their musical contributions to not only blues but
Two core factors
led to the starting of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, respect
for the artists and love of the music. These have been the driving
forces for the last fifteen years that have kept the founders zeal
at a high level. The musicians were truly the focal point in the
beginning of the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Early on, the organizers
wanted to showcase performers that had been instrumental in the
development of Helenas blues scene. Artists such as Robert
Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Frank Frost, and Sam
Carr, Cedell Davis were all booked for the first festival. These
artist were contacted because of their contribution to the blues
world and their ties to Helena not because it was felt that they
would draw a large crowd and insure the success of the festival.
That mind-set has continued to be the attitude of the original organizers
since, it is more important to give just recognition to deserving
blues artist than to have a line-up that will draw huge crowds but
betray Helenas musical legacy.
The King Biscuit
Blues Festival has undergone many changes since the early beginnings,
several stages have been added, the number of days have been increase
then decreased, bigger budgets, bigger crowds. Through all the many
changes, the one constant has been the music and the bond between
the musicians and the King Biscuit Blues Festival. The artists realize
the organizers are trying to present the music in such a way that
will both educate as well as entertain.
The last fifteen
years has brought much recognition to Helena and its musical history.
People roam around the world gather in Helena each fall to help
the community celebrate and honor the musical greatness of its forefathers
and its heritage. That was always the goal of the original organizers,
recognition for the great African-American musicians from Helena
and the area and acknowledgement for their contributions.
What will the
future bring for the King Biscuit Blues Festival? Will musicians
and the public still hold the festival in such high regard? Will
the festival still be able to maintain a high level of talent in
the face of increasing fees and costs?
predict the future in these areas but if the past is any indication,
the Biscuit will persevere. The dedication of the hundreds of volunteers,
that freely give of their time every year and expect nothing in
return, will carry the spirit of the Biscuit into the future.