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My blues heaven 

Worldly: Taj Mahal headlines King Biscuit on Oct. 9
  • Worldly: Taj Mahal headlines King Biscuit on Oct. 9
Drawing name acts has never been a problem for Helena-West Helena's annual Columbus Day Weekend blues festival. Genre legends like T-Model Ford, Robert Junior Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins have long made regular visits to King Biscuit — as the festival continues to be known to all who love it, regardless of who owns the copyright or the current mouthful of a name.

But it's safe to say that this year's 25th anniversary festival, Oct. 7-9, is entirely without precedent. Blues god B.B. King opens the three-day concert on Thursday night, and piano man Dr. John and world blues pioneer Taj Mahal follow on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively. The all-star roster came together, according to those close to the festival, thanks to a little bit of scheduling luck and a whole lot of Munnie Jordan, the indefatigable executive director of the festival.

Jordan, 67, first headed up King Biscuit from 1992 until 1997, a largely prosperous period for the festival, owing in large part to the arrival of casinos in Mississippi at Lula across the river from Helena and, down the road, at Tunica. Last year, when the Sonny Boy Blues Society found itself in financial disarray, it asked her to return as executive director.

"It wasn't really in my plans," Jordan said. "I have six grandchildren. But our town depends on the festival. We're devastated economically down here in the Delta."

Second only to reinstituting careful bookkeeping and budgeting — something she said was ignored in her absence — fund-raising has been Jordan's chief priority in her second go-round heading the festival. The numbers testify to her success. Last year's budget was around $300,000, according to Jordan. This year's is $568,000, she said, with much of the increase going towards entertainment.

Katie Harrington, the director of the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena, which contributed $50,000 towards this year's main stage, said that Jordan's tenacity has been key to the festival's resurgence.

"She's the type of person who has her mind set on certain things, and she's going to get her way. She's getting things done."

The expansion of the festival extends beyond the big names. Its footprint extends well beyond the main stage (the only area that requires tickets; they're $25 and cover the entire weekend). This year there are five total stages — the main stage, an acoustic stage, an emerging artist stage, a gospel stage and the "Bit of Blues" stage, where child acts will perform — as opposed to last year's three. There's a barbecue contest. A 10K and a 5K. A blues symposium.

"We're adding different things as we go along," Jordan said. "We want to make it something for the whole family."

Another festival with a similar motto is a model, Jordan said: "Our goal is to grow like Riverfest."

That might sound far-fetched for anyone who's visited Helena, a sleepy Delta town that's never found industry to replace the river trade that made it a boomtown in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"As we say, it's 'where long ago isn't very far away,' " Jordan said. But past glory isn't always oppressive. Helena is steeped in musical tradition. It's where KFFA, the nation's longest-running blues radio station was born in 1941. Where Sonny Boy Williamson became a hero to future blues heroes — B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters —with his radio show, "King Biscuit Time." Where Levon Helm learned to play drums. Where Conway Twitty put together his first vocal group.

And blues fans, arguably the most passionate of music aficionados, know the city's place in history. Perhaps the world's most famous blues geek, Robert Plant, has made several pilgrimages. When I interviewed him recently and mentioned this year's festival headliners, he was practically giddy.

The same day I spoke to Jordan last week, four foreign journalists — two from the Netherlands, one from Germany, and one from London — had requested media credentials to cover the festival.

Europeans regularly volunteer and contribute money towards the festival, Jordan said.

"They give money, honey!"

Jordan, a lifelong Helena resident, sees the festival as the best thing the city's got going for it.

"It certainly gives the city an economic boost. It gives our community a tremendous amount of pride. Everyone — black, white, rich, poor — comes together to make it happen. It's a real unifying thing for our community. And it's fun!"

It's a model she hopes to expand upon.

"My dream is that we can keep this going and build the confidence of the whole state, so that we can build on festival weekends throughout the year."

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