Last week I presented a paper at the 2017 Delta Symposium at Arkansas State University. On the way I spent a couple of days in Helena, Arkansas, revisiting some work I did 30 years.
A high point of the trip was being interviewed by Helena radio personality Sonny Payne on the King Biscuit Time show. Sonny turned the tables on me: I’m usually the one asking the questions and “holding” the microphone. My wife and I had gone to the Delta Cultural Center in-between interviews I was doing with Helena residents. After I re-introduced myself to Sonny, he asked us to sit in on the show. It was program number 17,679!
Sonny Payne. Delta Cultural Center broadcast studio, Helena, Arkansas.
Here’s a clip from the show:
Audio clip courtesy of KFFA’s King Biscuit Time.
© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein
Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.
Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”
Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading