March 22, 2007
HELENA-WEST HELENA – The Delta Cultural Center, bowing to popular demand, is continuing its acclaimed exhibit, “Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues,” for another year.
The major temporary exhibit debuted on May 1, 2004, and was originally slated to end in April 2007. The continuing popularity of the exhibit – and its success in communicating an important part of the DCC’s mission – spurred the facility to push its closing back for a final encore year.
“This is one project that gives me pride every day,” said Katie Harrington, director of the Delta Cultural Center. “The bulk of the ‘Main Street of the Blues’ exhibit was created in-house by talented staff. I must give credit to our Assistant Director Terry Buckalew. It was his vision and hard work that made all the difference.”
“Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues” is housed in the DCC Visitors Center at 141 Cherry Street.
Encompassed within the exhibit is the story of Helena’s origin in the early 1800s as an important harbor town along the Mississippi River. As the only high ground in much of the Delta, the town became a thriving port, railroad terminal, and gathering spot for commerce for the many rural people who made their livings in farming and timber throughout the region. It became an ethnically diverse city with significant African-American, Chinese, Lebanese, Greek, and Italian populations.
Helena developed a reputation as a “wild and wide open little town,” a place where commerce ruled. Nowhere was this better evidenced than in the city’s historic downtown where Cherry Street beckoned white shoppers, and – a block west – Walnut Street businesses welcomed a largely black clientele.
In 1937, Helena had nearly 80 retail grocers, three movie theatres, nine downtown restaurants, more than a dozen department stores, six liquor stores, four beer gardens, 28 service stations, three blacksmiths, five car dealerships, five hotels, 24 attorneys, 34 churches, nine doctors, four pool halls, and many saloons.
As much as Cherry and Walnut Streets thrived on the business of the day, they were just as popular, if not more so, at night when the business of Helena turned to entertainment. Cafes, billiard halls, bars, gambling houses, brothels, and juke joints all competed for commerce after dark. And in the air was a soundtrack of the blues.
The prospering port town attracted musicians from throughout the Delta, and developed many homegrown talents of its own. And when “King Biscuit Time” debuted on Helena radio station KFFA on November 21, 1941, the city’s reputation as the hub of bluesmen only grew. Though today’s blues sound is called by many names – Chicago blues, Mississippi blues, Delta blues – few deny the sound of modern blues developed on the streets and in the bars and juke joints of downtown Helena.
The list of musicians with Helena ties spotlighted in the exhibit is a staggering who’s who of the blues: Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Lockwood, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, “Hound Dog” Taylor, Earl Hooker, Cedell Davis, Sam Carr, Earl Hooker, Levon Helm, James “Peck” Curtis, Red Holloway, Roosevelt Sykes, Robert “Dudlow” Taylor and more. The exhibit also looks at the contributions of “King Biscuit Time” and legendary Helena disc jockey “Sunshine” Sonny Payne in the development of the blues, as well as the role of the blues in Helena today.
Terry Buckalew, DCC assistant director, served as curator of the exhibit, working with The Communications Group design firm in Little Rock. “Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues” features numerous artifacts, many never before displayed for public view, including musical instruments, mercantile items, historical photographs, and more.
In 2005, the DCC was awarded the 2005 Exhibit of the Year Award for “Helena, Arkansas: Main Street of the Blues” by the Arkansas Museums Association, and was also recognized as Museum of the Year for Arkansas museums with an annual budget of $100,000 to $500,000.
The DCC opened the exhibit in 2004, recognizing the “Find It on Main Street” theme of that year’s Arkansas Heritage Month. This May, the state-wide theme will be “Arkansas Business,” and the exhibit still appears timely, Harrington said.
“Minor updates will be made to the current exhibit throughout the year and additional artifacts will be added, but the exhibit theme and focus will remain the same,” she noted.
Admission to the Delta Cultural Center is free; hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, interested persons can contact the DCC at (870) 338-4350 or (800) 358-0972, or visit the DCC website at www.deltaculturalcenter.com.
The Delta Cultural Center is a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. The Delta Cultural Center shares the vision of all seven agencies of the Department of Arkansas Heritage -- to preserve and promote Arkansas heritage as a source of pride and satisfaction. Other agencies within the department are the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Old State House Museum, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, the Arkansas Arts Council and the Natural Heritage Commission.