The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (501-682-1191) can supply a number of helpful pamphlets, including Eastern Arkansas’ Great River Road . Call the Helena Tourism Commission (501-338-9831) for their pamphlet Helena: Where the Ridge and the River Meet . And to arrange a tour with Annetta Beauchamp, you can reach her at 501-338-3607.
Blues is still very much part of the Helena story, and with the Great River Road brochure you can fashion a trip that starts eighty miles north in Memphis, the home of Beale Street, stops in Helena, and ends up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which features a summer blues festival and the excellent Delta Blues Museum (601-624-4461). For more information on Clarksdale, at one time home to W. C. Handy and Muddy Waters, among others, contact the Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce (601-627-7337).
If you want to see normally somnolent Helena bustle, time a trip there to coincide with the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, a free event spreading all through the downtown area that is said to draw up to fifty thousand visitors from around the world. Held on the second weekend of October, the festival brings back to Helena some of the great old surviving blues performers, people like Robert Jr. Lockwood, Pinetop Perkins, and Johnny Shines, who once might have been found in the town’s now long-gone juke joints or simply improvising on street corners.
In Helena, or anywhere within reach of its airwaves, tune in to “King Biscuit Time” on Radio KFFA (1360 AM) weekdays from twelve-fifteen to twelve forty-five. This program has been going nonstop since 1941, hosted for all those years by Sonny Payne. These days he airs his show from the Delta Cultural Center, the songs of the local bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson forming the heart of each broadcast. But Payne always comes up with a Delta’s span of entertainers, and he even manages to make the commercials ring. “You’ll get the best corn bread you ever tasted with Sonny Boy Meal,” he silkily promises. “It’s washed many times in clear, pure water.”
Even without the draw of the blues festival, Helena gets more visitors than one might think. A lot of these are businesspeople, catering to the big farming operations nearby, and others are gamblers, lured by a casino that lies just five minutes over the bridge on the Mississippi side of the river. (Historically Helena has provided the only river crossing for 150 miles with the 1961 bridge replacing an earlier ferry service.) Because of these travelers, the two fine bed-and-breakfasts in town are usually pretty busy. I stayed at the Edwardian Inn (501-338-9155), a spacious 1904 Victorian of the steamboat style, filled with fine detailing that reflects the area’s early fame as the hardwood capital of the world. Business is good enough that the owners, Cathy and Ernest Cunningham, leaders in revitalizing Helena, have bought the now empty but strikingly beautiful Italianate house next door to convert it into an extension of their inn.
On a mild summer evening I had a chance to sit on the screened porch of Magnolia Hill, the other bed-and-breakfast (501-338-6874), and talk with the owner Jane Insco about the appeal of small-town life. She told me that she and her husband, James, had owned a printing business in Memphis, working virtually a seven-day week. One Sunday she said to him, “Let’s be like real people and go for a drive in the country.” They found themselves in Helena, and she found herself asking a real estate agent what might be for sale that would be suitable for an inn. You can guess the rest.