My journey in pictures

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Helena, Morse, Starks and some KILLER wings!

I took a personal little Blues journey yesterday. I started in Helena, Arkansas. It's right across the river and back in the late 1800's and early 1900's it was what all the old timers say was "wide open". Gambling, drinking, prostitution and you name it. Its where the "King Biscuit Time" show originated in 1941 which had about EVERY Blues star of the day as performers . It claims (among many things) that it's even where Levon Helm (raised just west of Helena in Turkey Scratch) made his on air debut with his sister. Anyways, the town has TONS of history and now a days is for the most part a ghost town. It's right on the Mississippi.
I walked in to Gist Music store, being one of the few businesses that was still remaining and met a sweet older man with a beautiful southern accent (sounded almost South Carolinian to me). Morse Gist was born and raised in Helena. He opened the store in 1953 after getting out of the military. The store looked mostly like a museum but still had new guitars and amps on display. Mostly the cheaper lines of gear. Morse said his dad was in the Jukebox business in the 30's that got them through a lot of the Depression and it kinda gave him the thought of opening a music store seeing as it was SUCH a scene back in the day and there was no music store around. Morse says the 50's were the big days of Helena and that around the early 60's the people "got on the dope" and it all started going down hill. The "dopers" started hanging around and scaring the locals. The restaurants and bars stopped staying open at night because of that. That combined with the farming evolution and "clear cutting" of the local timber that took away a LOT of the manual labor and just added insult to injury. When talking about "The Depression" Morse said that people comparing these days to the depression makes him laugh. He says that during the depression around Helena, the people "worked to eat through the day". He says with all the big wooden houses around people would typically paint them for the price of "a coupla peanut butter sandwiches and something to drink". Its amazing how many immigrants there were in the early 1900's. Morse said there was viable Greek, Black, Italian and even Lebanese societies back in the day and people pretty much got along. He did talk about the black prejudice and how blacks "were not welcome" past a certain street (the left of his door, but to the right they were). I also asked him about the bridge across the river (built a coupla years after the store opened) and he says that the bridge (once built) took more people away from town than it drew in. They could then travel to Memphis for shopping instead of making the hard journey north through the Arkansas side to cross the river. He says you'd have to take two spare tires with you to get you there and back because of the really awful gravel roads. I could have went on for hours but I was keeping him from going home so I left him to get on with his day and as we said our goodbye's Morse say's "Peace be with you".

 The few stores that are open on this 5x10 block area don't have hardly anyone in them and the nicest place I walked in was the Delta Cultural Center which has to be funded by some outside source (or grant). GREAT place to visit to get the local music history though.

On the way outta town I stopped by a barbecue stand in front of an old liquor store and ate some wings and vegetables cooked by Starks (see pic with friend). He owned 2 "Social Clubs" back in the late 70's & 80's, a rocks throw from where we were standing and says that "it was on fire" during those days. He say's mid day on a Saturday you'd have to get up on the sidewalks to walk down the street with all the people crowded into the middle (of the streets) where we were now standing. He has the same story about dope causing the down fall of the great night  and social life. Funny thing is, it didn't affect him or he didn't think it all went to hell in a hand basket until the late 80's. Blacks and white's definitely (and obviously) have 2 different histories and recollections. He pointed across the street to a now vacant and overgrown lot and said that there was 4 "Social clubs" in that one block back in the day (70's and 80's). Anyways, he's since moved to Little Rock and comes back on weekends with his barbecue trailer. Damn that man could cook some "fall off the bone"chicken and vegetables. I'll have to save the rest of my journey for tomorrow. I gotta pack up and head for Nashville. Looks like I'll be driving through the rain today. Later, S


  1. Dear Scott, My name is Mary Ann Mizell from Little Rock, Arkansas. Wanted to let you know that Morse Gist of Helena is my father. I so enjoyed your post about him. He has entertained many people such as yourself as they wander into town and stop at the music store. He has many years of experience and stories to tell. He even used to sell guitar strings to Elvis when he came to town in the early 50's to play at the Catholic Club. Several years back the Smithsonian sent a team to Helena to video tape my Dad about growing up in Helena and the development of the Blues Music. Helena has a fascinating history and one of the true historians of Helena in the 20th century is my father. Thanks for the article, we truly enjoyed it. We read it to him on the phone the other night. It's a funny story how we tripped on to your blog. My grown daughter was stating how little she knew about her grandparents and the times they grew up in. Her husband said "let's goggle him and see what comes up" and up you blogspot came. Gotta Love Technology these days. A great tribute you did on him. We are grateful, he of course, is amazed and humbled. That's my dad for you !

  2. Thanks for the beautiful write-up about Mr Gist. Was at the Blues Festival that same month, walked into his store like going back 40yrs ago as a teenager, and had the most pleasant chat with him about his kids, my classmates. Thanks again, his daughter appreciates this article too. :)

  3. Jane ann FortenberryJune 27, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    WOW! For the past several years, I have taken my father to the Blues Concet in Helena. He is 89 years old. We don't leave Helena without first stopping or going by the Gist Music Store. Great article on a huge person of interest!