Arkansas is a southern state. It is in the same cultural sphere as the Mississippi
River Delta, New Orleans,
and the music of the Deep South. As such, the blues are an important part of
the state's musical heritage. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the little town of
Helena on the shores of the mighty Mississippi River was a magnet for musicians
in the emerging musical style, and was called the Chicago of the South. As a
way to revive the downtown area, a festival was held here in 1986. It was called
the King Biscuit Blues Festival after a popular 1940s radio music hour. Since
then, it has been renamed the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and is one
of the most important music festivals in the South. It is, in fact, the largest
free blues event in the United States.
Held over four days in October, this Arkansas Blues Festival draws more than 100,000 attendees from around the world. It is sponsored by the Sonny Boy Blues Society, a legal 501.c3 charity that has worked very hard through sponsorships by local businesses to keep the event both free as well as true to its cultural and musical heritage that is interwoven into the history of the state.
Helena is about 120 miles east of Little Rock and only 70 miles southwest of Memphis, Tennessee, a historic center of blues, gospel, and rock n' roll. So it's not all that surprising to see that the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival celebrates this most American of all music.
This Arkansas Blues Festival was first held on the back of a flat bed truck. Today, it has its own permanent site boasting four stages, including one stage dedicated to gospel. Located nearby in the historic Helena downtown is one of the main sponsors of the Arkansas Blues Festival, and one of the region's tourist attractions—the Delta Cultural Center. In addition to chronicling the history of the region, the Center is home to Delta Sounds, a state-of-the-art music and exhibit area dedicated to the music of the Arkansas Delta.
While music is the main draw, many dining establishments come to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival from as far away as Fayetteville and Hot Springs to display their wares and specialty dishes. Heavy emphasis is placed on down home southern and regional cooking, including barbecue and Delta specialties like gumbo, catfish, fried dill pickles, and fried green tomatoes. Many dishes are cooked in a Dutch oven, the state's signature cooking vessel that plays an important part of the state's history. Other vendors also show up, selling arts and handcrafts unique to the region, as well as festival souvenirs.
Before or after the Arkansas Blues Festival you can visit many regional attractions.
In the town of Helena, you can take tours
of beautiful historic ante bellum homes. For enthusiasts of camping
and outdoor recreation, there is the nearby St. Francis National Forest with
more than 22,000 acres of prime hiking
and fishing as well as one
of the state's many recreational lakes. Running the entire length of the state
is the 362-mile Arkansas segment of the Great River Road, which extends through
ten states from Minnesota
to the Gulf of Mexico. This is a National Scenic Byway, and a wonderful destination
for Arkansas vacations.