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.