Delta Blues & Cajun Spice: Day 2
Clarksdale, MS to Vicksburg, MS: A day in Arkansas, from the the live broadcast of King Biscuit Time blues show to a drive along the Mississippi River levees
Sunshine Sonny Payne presenting the legendary King Biscuit blues show just as he has for 57 years in Helena, Arkansas.
It's King Biscuit Time!
“Pass the biscuits, ’cause it’s King Biscuit Time!” Sunshine Sonny Payne has opened his radio show with that phrase since 1951.
Dad and I sat ten feet from where the 81-year-old Sonny was spinning records on the 15,342nd broadcast of the world’s longest-running radio show, now broadcast from the Delta Cultural Center (141 Cherry St., Helena, AK, tel. 800-358-0972, www.deltaculturalcenter.com, free) in Helena, Arkansas.
Payne was just a kid sweeping floors at the station on November 21, 1941, when Helena’s KFFA 1360 AM began shilling King Biscuit flour with 15 minutes of live blues by harmonica genius Sonny Boy Williamson II.
For the show’s first decade—during most of which Payne was off fighting World War II and playing bass for Tex Ritter and Ted Williams—Sonny Boy simply played live in the studio.
He was usually accompanied by boogie-woogie piano pioneer Pinetop Perkins—a mentor to Clarksdale native Ike Turner—and guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood. (The oddly placed “Jr.” emphasizes Lockwood’s hallowed place in blues history as Robert Johnson’s stepson, and the only man to whom Johnson ever gave guitar lessons.)
• Day 1: Memphis, Hernando, Oxford, and Clarksdale
• Day 2: Helena, the crossroads, Leland, the Levee
• Day 3: Vicksburg, Natchez Trace, Natchez
• Day 4: Breaux Bridge, St. Martinsville, New Iberia, Franklin, New Orleans
• Practical info
The show has since lengthened to half an hour every weekday, but it still starts at 12:15pm.
As longtime listener Riley King once explained in an interview: “Being on a plantation, you had an hour off for lunch. I would come out of the field at noon. Sonny Boy Williamson would come on about 12:15. So, we had a chance to listen to live music from one of the guys I liked a lot...and KFFA was the only station in the area at that time that played music by black people."
That field hand later became a DJ and a noted guitar player himself, garnering the nickname "Blues Boy” King, soon shortened to B.B. King.
The crossroads quest
From Helena we crossed back into Mississippi and turned south on Hwy. 1, the Great River Road. We drove past old pecan plantations, and could smell the controlled crop burns even before we saw the chimneys of brown smoke rising over endless cotton fields.
Dad pointed to a chain gang working by the side of the road in white-striped green pants and said, “My dad used to do that.” I glanced over, wondering whether this was one story about PaPa I really didn’t want to hear.
But Dad was wearing his lopsided grin and chuckling. “I’d forgotten about that,” he said with the dazed look of someone recovering a childhood memory. Turns out when he was a kid riding in the car with his best friend’s family, he’d pointed at some prisoners working on a bridge and said the same thing. What he’d meant was that his father, among many other occupations, had riveted some bridges in his day, but for an uncomfortable few moments everyone in the car thought that Frank, Sr. had done hard time.
We turned down Stovall Road to see Stovall Farm where Muddy Waters grew up, running moonshine and hosting a juke joint in his grandmother's shack until Alan Lomax, roving archivist for the Library of Congress, showed up one day to record some of Muddy’s renowned slide guitar work.
I didn't wander the grounds to find the site of his shack (now preserved up the road in the Clarksdale Blues Museum), but I did stop into the farm store, in a dust bowl of a parking lot surrounded by rows of cotton, to grab some sodas and snacks.
Just east of Beulah, I followed my homemade guidebook’s directions down back roads to the dirt and asphalt intersection of Frazier and Walton Roads, a more likely (and certainly more forlornly picturesque) candidate for the infamous Robert Johnson crossroads. Crop dusters buzzed low over the fields as I climbed a farm gate and tried to photograph the spot.
For a break from the blues, we made a quick stop along the banks of Deer Creek in Leland, MS. In addition to being yet another Crossroads contender (though the bland intersection of old US 61 and Rte. 84 didn’t impress me), Leland was also the boyhood home of Jim Henson.
The future Muppeteer used to fish and catch frogs along this tranquil stretch of swampy river with his childhood pal, Theodore Scott, who like many southerners usually went by his middle name: Kermit.
Drove my Pontiac to the levee and the levee was gorgeous
Just south of Greenville, before zipping south to Vicksburg for the night, we detoured back across the Mississippi into Arkansas to drive a section of the levee just north of Lake Chicot State Park (2542 Highway 257, Lake Village, AK, 870-265-5480, www.arkansasstateparks.com/lakechicot).
At 640 miles, this is one of the world’s longest levees, rebuilt after the disastrous 1927 flood immortalized in so many early blues songs and re-created in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The Coen brothers’ Homeric riff on life in the Depression-era Delta also incorporates the Tommy Johnson version of the crossroads legend, and has Stephen Root’s radio DJ repeat the immortal line “Pass the biscuits!”)
The narrow gravel track atop the levee was one of the scenic highlights of our trip. Cattle and horses grazed on the levee’s grassy slopes. The unfarmed side of the levee, which flattened toward the river, was a dense swampland filled with egrets. Below us to the landward side, cotton fields stretched to the Arkansas horizon.
• Delta Cultural Center, 141 Cherry St., Helena, AK, 800-358-0972, www.deltaculturalcenter.com, free.
• Lake Chicot State Park, 2542 Highway 257, Lake Village, AK, 870-265-5480, www.arkansasstateparks.com/lakechicot, free.
• Abe's BBQ, 616 State St., Clarksdale, MS, 662-624-9947, www.abesbbq.com, sandwiches $3.25.
• Cedar Grove Mansion, 2300 Washington St., Vicksburg, MS, 800-862-1300, www.cedargroveinn.com, doubles $100–$180, suites to $195.
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