. . . and the 1996 King Biscuit Blues Festival began for us some
1,000 miles to the southeast in central Florida. John and I embarked on
our second annual Delta trip on Tuesday, October 8. The road took us to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, for what was to become a Civil Rights tour; into more remote and troubling parts of western Alabama; across the hills of northern Mississippi into Memphis; then finally down Highway 61 to the four-day festival in Helena, Arkansas.
This is Part 2 of 2. On these pages, I've got 57 jpeg images to share with you. They range in file size from about 14k to 40k. (Ain't is always true that the best ones are also the biggest.) I think most web browsers have a jpeg viewer built in, and this should work fine. If not, you'll need to configure a viewer to use with your browser. Try ACDSee for Windows 3.X and Windows 95. It's fast and versatile. Enjoy the pictures, but please do not distribute them without asking me first. You sure as hell cannot use them to make money. Thanks.
Walking In Memphis
We covered three states on Thursday. From Starkville, Bill headed for Clarksdale and the Delta Blues Museum. He was going to operate their booth at the festival and had to pick up the goods. John and I followed him west on US 82 and up through the Mississippi hills and around Grenada Lake. Then we caught I-55 north to Memphis.
Once in Memphis, we headed for Beale Street, but not before stopping at the legendary Sun Studio on Union Avenue. This is where Sam Phillips operated the Memphis Recording Service in the early 1950's, recording not only Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, but also B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Milton, James Cotton, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, and Rufus Thomas, to name just a few. We didn't take the tour, but we did enjoy some nostalgic moments at the cafe, where they were playing Howlin' Wolf through some vintage AM radios.
Beale Street is just down Union and a few blocks south. That's A. Schwab's you see on the right -- a store for everything from walking canes to plastic shower caps to incense and roots. It's been open here since 1876. I bought a $5 t-shirt and two High John The Conquer Roots -- one to keep and one to share. Here's a shot from inside Schwab's. Farther down Beale we came up on Handy Park and the statue of W.C. Handy.
There's so much more to see along the "new" Beale Street, which from the 20's through the 40's was just about the meanest mile of street anywhere: B.B. King's, the Center for Southern Folklore, the Beale Street Blues Museum, The Monarch Club, the Rum Boogie Cafe, Mitchell's Hotel, The Blues Foundation, and within walking distance, the Orpheum Theater, WDIA, and The Peabody Hotel. But sometime in the mid-afternoon, we heard Helena calling, so we found our way over to Second Street and headed on down Highway 61.
Heading To Helena
South from Memphis, Highway 61 is a somber drive. The road is still changing -- sometimes it's two lanes, sometimes four, but I don't imagine the surrounding landscape has changed much at all since the fertile Delta land was claimed for cotton in the early 1800's. For the next hour, we were to slip through one town after another whose significance in the blues world far surpassed its tiny place in the physical one: Walls, Mississippi, where Memphis Minnie learned to play the guitar in the 1910's; Robinsonville, where Robert Johnson played with Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Son House in the 1920's, and where his first wife and child died in 1930; and Tunica, where James Cotton heard Sonny Boy Williamson play the harmonica on "King Biscuit Time" in the mid-1940's. Down around Lula, we turned west onto Highway 49, headed past the Lady Luck Casino, and crossed the Mississippi into Helena, Arkansas.
We met up with Bill and his friend James at the Delta Blues Museum booth, then as the sun began to set, we traded in some cash for "blues bucks" (though "booze bucks" was more like it) and headed on down to the Feature Blues Stage. Being opening night and a weeknight, too, the festival crowd hadn't yet arrived in full force, which was nice. I was mightily impressed with the first act we saw: Susan Tedeschi, a young blues lady from someplace up north. She's a very fine guitarist, and with a full, strong voice that was made for singing the blues. West Coast harmonicist James Harman followed and was soon joined by the omnipresent-to-be Mr. Ronnie Earl. And wrapping it up at the stage that night was the ever popular Kenny Neal.
But the night was too damn young, so we headed back up Cherry Street to a remarkable photo gallery slash blues club called Lefty's Arkablue. First we caught an excellent trio led by Mr. Downchild on slide guitar and backed by none other than the great Sam Carr. (Sorry, I didn't get the harmonica player's name.) Then our first night in Helena ended just as it should've -- with a classic performance by Junior Kimbrough. Ronnie Earl was there, too.
Feasting On Friday
Friday was the first full day of the King Biscuit, and 12 hours of blues with the weather heaven-sent made for a feast for thousands. We discovered a great new act right away down at the Feature Blues Stage. He's young Sean Costello -- a gutsy blues-a-billy performer from Atlanta. We met up with Sean and the band later that night at the Sonny Boy Blues Society. The acts had us bouncing from the feature stage to the Houston Stackhouse Acoustic Stage all day long. We saw Blind Mississippi Morris at the acoustic stage, then headed right back to the feature stage to catch Frank Frost and Sam Carr. About that time, I caught up with P.W. Fenton and Dick Waterman and friend. That's Dick going on about some picture or another.
We settled in for a few acoustic sets from Catfish Keith and Alvin Youngblood Hart before heading back to the feature stage for Lonnie Shields. Then it was back to the acoustic stage again for the dynamic duo that is Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, then it was Corey Harris, and finally, Honeyboy Edwards. Then, did we head back to the feature stage?
Yes. And Billy Branch was tearing up the place! That's Carl Weathersby at center stage. Coco Montoya followed up ably, playing one of the most exciting sets of the festival. After Coco, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, then Delbert McClinton closed the show, but we headed up to the Sonny Boy Blues Society for another set with Sean Costello. I don't remember much after that.
The King Biscuit was coming to an end all too soon, but once we dispensed with the trip's lowlight -- finding a parking space -- we were to have one more full and lovely day of festival in store. They'd thrown up another stage overnight, so added to our mix of acoustic and feature acts were those at the Heritage Stage, which is where we soon found John Primer, then the full-flavored sounds of the divine Candy Shines, and then the full-bodied fretwork of Mr. Paul "Wine" Jones. He was to have led into a set by the great R.L. Burnside, but dammit, the man didn't show -- somewhere in Europe, they said -- which was a bummer, as was the similar status of Pinetop Perkins later that night. So off we headed to the feature stage, where we found -- playing his own set, no less -- Ronnie Earl.
Now here's a picture you don't see every day: It's 92-year-old Jack Owens scowling next to 20-something blues femme Susan Tedeschi who is gabbing with 50-something rock legend Al Kooper. And over Al's shoulder naps the ageless Dick Waterman. (Way back over Susan's shoulder is Bob Vorel -- the man behind Blues Revue magazine.) As closing night commenced to unfolding on us, none other than Robert Jr. Lockwood took the stage -- though his appearance was all too brief. Oh, right about that time, our papparazzi-at-large happed upon the lovely and talented Memphian par excellance Ms. Denise Tapp, shown here with Bobby Rush's front man.
And speaking of Bobby Rush, you know you're where you wanna be when Bobby Rush takes the stage. And when Bobby Rush takes the stage. And also when Bobby Rush takes the stage. Man, what a show! So it was no wonder that Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets with Sam Myers had a hard time following, even with the help of, uhhh, Ronnie Earl. And whereas Pinetop Perkins was a no-show, the finale came early and stayed awhile. The extraordinary Luther Allison delivered a performance by which the 1996 King Biscuit will always be remembered.
Finishing Some Business
It was Sunday, and somehow the festival, and something more, became complete with our experience that afternoon some 40 miles north in Walls, Mississippi. Lizzie Douglas was born near New Orleans in 1897 and moved to Walls with her family seven years later. Within a few years "Kid" Douglas had learned to play the guitar, and as a teenager, she began to make a name for herself playing in Church Park off Beale Street in Memphis. She recorded a song called Bumble Bee in 1929 before moving off to Chicago with a man named Joe McCoy, her husband to be.
Another 25 years later, she returned to Memphis to retire. In 1973, she died there and was buried in a unmarked grave at the New Hope Baptist Church back home in Walls. On October 13, 1996, Lizzie's family, friends, and a few dozen fans returned to New Hope to remember her and to dedicate a headstone at her grave. Soon after the unveiling, which was performed by (left to right) Paul Garon, author of Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues; Skip Henderson, of the Mount Zion Memorial Fund; and Jim O'Neal of Rooster Blues Records, Paul Garon posed at the headstone with an original 78 of Memphis Minnie's 1929 recording Bumble Bee as two of Minnie's oldest living relatives looked on.
The Mount Zion Memorial Fund has now dedicated nine such headstones and monuments to the memories of some of our greatest blues artists. The other eight so remembered are Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi Joe Callicott, and Son Thomas. Proceeds to the fund go to not only creating and erecting the memorials, but also to maintaining the sites and to providing legal and financial suppport to the living relatives of the artists. Donations to the fund can be mailed to Mount Zion Memorial Fund, P.O. Box 327, Clarksdale, MS 38614. Phone (601) 624-5186.