What is the King Biscuit Blues Festival?
The King Biscuit Blues Festival, founded in 1986, is one of the nation’s foremost showcases of blues music. Held for three days annually in October, tens
of thousands of blues enthusiasts converge on historic downtown Helena, Arkansas to hear stirring and uplifting performances of an American art form on the banks of the Mississippi River.
As the home of “King Biscuit Time,” the longest running radio show ever, Helena became legendary in the Delta. Sonny Boy Williamson and other musicians played live on KFFA every weekday, pausing for King Biscuit Flour commercials and announcements of their next nighttime performances.
Jim O’Neal, the editor of Living Blues Magazine at the time and an authority on blues history, said, “The King Biscuit hour was the thing that really crystallized blues music in this area. Muddy Water and B.B. King would come home from working in the fields every day just to listen to the King Biscuit hour.
In an interview with The Daily World in October of 1986, harmonica wizard James Cotton expressed the feelings of many Delta blues musicians who chose to “come home” to Helena for the first King Biscuit Blues Festival. From original King Biscuit Time artists such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins, to younger performers such as Anson Funderburgh, a wide range of blues stars were thrilled to be a part of Helena’s celebration of its musical roots.
Artists, too, remember a time – the 1940’s and 1950’s – when the town was filled with music.
Pinetop Perkins, a King Biscuit regular, said in the Daily World that 1940s Helena “aint’ nothin like it is now. I used to play all night long at a club called the Hole in the Wall. We got paid $3 a night plus all the whiskey we could drink. We’d play all night and then go home and sleep until it was time to play again. Those were the days.”
But by the mid-1980s, Helena had changed from a jumping town to a community in danger of dying. Businesses were closing and people realized the downtown area was decaying, but no one knew what to do to save it.
Experienced Main Street directors recommended community festivals to get local people back to town and, at the same time, promote tourism. The group, which would later form the Sonny Boy Blues Society, became the core of the first King Biscuit Blues Festival planning committee.
Helena’s musical heritage was largely unknown even to hardcore blues fans. The King Biscuit Blues Festival was an effort by local blues lovers to establish Helena’s rightful place in the Delta’s musical history.
The King Biscuit Blues Festival did not run into any problems until 2005 when the festival became the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.
It wasn’t until the festival’s 25th Anniversary that festival supporters began to look into getting the King Biscuit name back, and they finally discovered that its current owner is Wolfgang’s Vault, a vast archive of live music performances and recordings in San Francisco that includes the King Biscuit Flower Hour.
As soon as Wolfgang’s Vault understood the history of the blues festival in Helena, they allowed the King Biscuit name to be used again. Beginning in 2011 the festival name was restored to the "King Biscuit Blues Festival."