The King Biscuit Blues
by Derek Jenkins
The Blues are about luck. I had counted three wrecks and one fire on the way to the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas. The wrecks were cumbersome in my attempt to beat the dark patch of cumuli pouring in from the west, slugging past flashlight-waving policemen and crane-necked commuters. The fire was out of control and black smoke cloaked the doomed building with such success that I could make out nothing but towering flames and flickering red and white and blue and the moist, toxic smell of misfortune wafting through my vents. I turned up the stereo and buckled my seatbelt.
The rain caught me tentatively in Dumas, but I broke free of it somewhere on that two-lane highway bordered by clapboard houses and cotton fields and bits of cotton that sprinkled the roadside like a thousand scraps of paper in an Adopt-a-Highway nightmare. There’s no easy way to get to Helena. No four-lane highways. But these kind of things are the sugar in my coffee. I took highway 61 through Clarksdale to see Dylan earlier this year in Memphis. I ‘ve lived in this area my entire life, but it’s times like these that I need to see what these people are singing about.
I managed to beat the rain to Helena by about an hour, but it took all of that time to find the campsite, pay the fees, catch up with the friends I was meeting there and pitch my tent in a field of tarps and SUVs and bright-colored tents and barbecue grills and port-a-potties and makeshift plywood showers hooked up to leaky hoses and forty year old white men in khaki shorts and forty year old white women in ridiculous hats and bearded hippies who I knew would make no use of the makeshift showers. The first gentle drops sharpened the blue of my rainfly as I secured it to the top of my tent. Then the bottom dropped out.
Friday night’s shows were shut down or moved to inside venues with cover charges (which pissed me off to the extreme because I was dying to see Bryan Lee, the pork-pie hat wearing blind Blues Tiresius, whose performances, it has been implied, confiscate the audience’s collective woes and transform them into finger positions on a fret board and the connection of plastic to guitar strings). My friends and I shrugged off the rain and huddled under a sort-of-but-not-really-very-effective tarp that our new neighbors had draped halfheartedly over their van.
Add one part Country and two parts Blues, a little voltage, and you get Rock and Roll. It’s a great marriage, but the Blues that most people associate with the modern form of Rock and Roll is the Chicago sound, and I’m just not that interested in the Chicago sound. It’s still the Blues and I still have a huge respect for it; I just think something got lost in the Chicagoan electro-homogenization that was re-recorded and redefined and reinterpreted by people like the Animals, the Yardbirds, and John Mayall. My real passion is for the Delta Blues, which sounds like it was recorded on the back porch while some old black man with gnarled fingers plucked memorized and unwritten songs on an acoustic guitar and was sloppy and slurred and created raw, beautiful, emotional, real Blues. It’s not as though I don’t like the Chicago sound, but it is not what Alan Lomax chased down to Mississippi to record for the Library of Congress; it’s what someone recorded in some studio with amps and equalizers and all the rest of that emotion-muffling machinery. I want the music that sounds like whiskey smells. But I know that’s not what I’m going to hear, because that’s not the Blues you boogie to, that’s not the Blues you get together and worship, that’s not the cathartic, happy Blues. That is the Blues of defeat, desperation, and luck. C’mon, baby, didn’t Robert Johnson want to go, and for good reason, but, like da Vinci said, “Strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom.” Beauty is born out of pain, and fades in success, and something got lost in the translation. I had a feeling, sitting there under that pitiful tarp, taking in the overwhelming whiteness of my surroundings, that the Delta Blues didn’t exist anymore and wasn’t what I was going to hear at the festival. And I was right, I heard Mustang Sally a grand total of seven times in some fashion throughout the weekend, and, even though the festival had an acoustic stage, it was more like B.B. King Unplugged, and there was no sign of whiskey or battered guitars or rocking chairs or blue tick hound dogs or even old black men on the stage.
The Blues are about absurdity. Even as the skies above us took on this black-and-white-Wizard of Oz-quiet-before-the-storm look, rumor was drifting our way that a party was going on for special bracelet-equipped festival goers and we all decided to brave the non-yellow brick road up towards the main strip and check it out. We said our good-byes to our new neighbors, who seemed in no great hurry to join us and actually quite content to sit around and drink more beer. They both seemed nice enough but gave the impression of imminent 30-year-olds grasping at the 24-7 cool. (One wore a shirt that read “I like the Pope. The Pope smokes dope”, which could’ve been A) an old Smoking Popes T-shirt, or B) an unsettling proclamation of misguided religious zeal. The other, who kept surreptitiously prodding us for info on the drug scene and had a pretty violent stutter, was quickly becoming a little too friendly with our female compatriots.)
I donned my fresh-out-of- the-bag but anciently shelved poncho, which left me looking nothing like the rugged model on the package illustration and more like a giant, soggy, faded red breakfast cereal marshmallow. My more weather-prepared and fashionable friends joined after a quick stop by the port-a-potties, and we all set off in the direction from whence all other, more level-headed, people were coming.
The main strip of the festival ran through a particularly old-looking part of town. Maybe it was the blinking neon lights of the food vendors, but what I assume was supposed to look historic ended up looking run-down and poor and entirely more appropriate for the kind of festival I was hoping this would be. It was freezing and wet and the pavement of the road was shiny and black. An empty garbage bag at once bounced and floated down the street, like a gigantic black amoebae. I kept switching my beer from right hand to left, thawing out each in turn in the damp pockets of my Carhartts. We stood between the only two structures on the street that seemed to be occupied, trying to figure out exactly where we were qualified to go. One was a brick, open-air deal, with lots of official-looking guys out front, and the other was a large white tent that glowed gold from the inside like a half-spent candle. The brick thing throbbed with a warm, heavy bass and young girls’ laughter. The tent had a large opening in the front, through which we could see folding chairs and tables, plates of buffet food, and old men and women exhaling small white puffs that dissipated a few inches from their faces. It started to look more like an igloo than a half-spent candle, and I could swear they were playing bingo inside. We weren’t in the mood for bingo.
We got in the brick thing’s line, and, for the first time, I noticed that the wristbands on the left hands of my friends were a different color than the orange one I had been carrying so proudly in my wallet all week. I ignored this discrepancy and continued standing in the line, all the time nervously fingering my humble orange VIP pass, which I was beginning to believe might not be quite as VIP as I had thought.
My friends entered one by one, heads bobbing instantly as they passed through the doors, and when I flashed my orange wristband to the doormen, one just gave me an embarrassed smile and pointed across the street. I stood on my tip-toes, but saw nothing of my friends, so I backed off into the elements, trying to look as pathetic as possible -- maybe the doorman will find something in his heart -- but it only took a few seconds to realize that I was screwed. First of all, I am a notorious wanderer, and my friends would think nothing of not seeing me by their sides. Second, there was nowhere for me to go. The igloo looked to be closing shop and all the Ozzie and Harriet type festival-goers were spilling out into the street with their doggie bags and L.L. Bean slickers and multi-colored umbrellas.
Always one to make the best of the situation, I moped around the street, kicking at empty beer cans and cigarette butts and hoping that one of my friends would decide that warmth, women, music, and alcohol just wasn’t his/her bag and come outside for some good old cold rain and solitude. My only real hope was that the Smoking Pope and his stuttering friend were still telling drunken stories by the fire.
I stood out in the street for about twenty minutes before the doormen started eyeing me suspiciously, and I was forced to make the long and cold trek back to the campsite. The wind was howling by then and I walked at an acute and sad angle over the levee, down the railroad tracks, across the overpass, and down the little brick sidewalk where I finally caught sight of our neighbors’ bleak fire.
The wind was gushing down the sides of the levee that surrounded the campsite and having its way with the campers. One of the showers had fallen over, and I thought I saw a bunch of people chasing an elephant around in the distance before I realized that their tent had converted to a kite and was making tracks for Oz. In the port-a-potty line, people were hunched and square-stanced, battling with the gods tugging at the rugs beneath their feet and trying to warm their hands as much as possible before their turn came. I made my way over to the van where I could see the Smoking Pope bundled up by the fire. With him was an old man in a short sleeve T-shirt.
His name was Lloyd. I told them both what had happened, and they laughed and laughed. Lloyd was an aging hippie who liked to talk. He talked like those “non-traditional students” in college classrooms, who ask questions in the form of propositions (“wouldn’t you say. . .”, “doesn’t it seem. . .”), and had the usual superficial opinions I’ve come to expect from hippies (legalize it, we need to feed the children, save the rain forest, you can’t search me, that’s entrapment, Jerry’s a genius, anybody got any acid?). I spent most of the time he was talking making futile attempts to get out of the direction of the campfire smoke, but every time I moved, the wind whipped in from the other direction.
He was an all right guy. He had that lonely look of old men you see late at night at the Waffle House. He didn’t look at us while he was speaking, just stared into the fire. Smoke curled from the cigarette that dangled from his bushy white beard like the upward-reaching tendrils of an albino octopus. He was getting a divorce from his third wife. He was making it really hard for me to feel sorry for myself. When he talked about his children (we reminded him of his children, about the same age in fact, the Smoking Pope and I), his face erupted in smiles and cheek swells while he spoke in the broken syllables of someone who is talking about his passions. I’m not going to say we all teared up, but it was pretty smoky under that tarp.
I took out a pint of whiskey that I had been saving for Saturday night and passed it around. In return, Lloyd gave me a can of Old Style, the most terrible old-man beer I’ve ever drank. When my friends finally got back from the brick thing, stumbling and loud, we were about one shot away from breaking into song. One of them walked up, shrugged his shoulders, and asked, “Where ya been?” I gave him the finger.
The Blues are about empathy. I woke up in my tent Saturday morning from a dream of melting icebergs and fingers threading clear creeks and huge buildings that were shaped like tall glasses of ice water. I made a big breakfast on the Coleman (camping breakfasts are the best), and drank coffee that a middle-aged man -- smoking a big ass cigar at nine thirty in the morning! -- kept pouring into my styrofoam cup. It was beautiful outside; just enough wind for a long shirt. The kind of weather where it’s actually cool in the shade and warm in the sun.
We decided to go exploring around twelve, and set off, after excessive backpack organizing and plan making, for the main drag. There were more people than I expected, but not so many that it was crowded. They wore shirts that said things like, “Quick, kiss me. I’ve got the blues” and hats that said things like, “This is my Blues hat.” The road looked more hospitable in the daylight, lined with shops and street musicians. The crowd was pretty middle-class, concentrating hard on having fun. So hard that their brows were creased. I didn’t see a lot of locals. In the locker rooms of my younger days, I was presented a picture of Helena as a poor and predominately black town. My friends spoke in low voices of “playing the niggers” between the olive seats of the buses on football trips. They heard it from their brothers, who heard it from their fathers, who heard it from their brothers, who heard it from their fathers. Racism is passed down from generation to generation, like collectible plates or guns.
Helena is where Blues radio got started. A short radio program on KLLF, “King Biscuit Time”, featuring harp player Sonny Boy Williamson and guitar player Robert Junior Lockwood, was the first show to feature black musicians. It was an immediate success. The popularity of the Blues spread all over the country. KLLF is this town’s Ellis Island, a part of their history that put a one-horse town on the map and had a big part in changing the cultural perception of a backwards country. Every year, the Blues come back, with all of their sharp clothes and sidestreet bar innovations.
Chicago bluesman Billy Boy Arnold hit the stage around two o’clock, and he blew us away. He wore a pool hall getup without making it look like a getup, and you could smell the beer and cigarette smoke and wood polish a mile away. He was taught his chops by Sonny Boy Williamson, and spit the choke-style Blues from his harmonica like the old pro that he is. Arnold played harp on Bo Diddley’s first record, “I’m a Man”, and he had the been-around Blues presence of the genuine article. He sang lines like everyone knew what he was talking about, then would step back from the mic and wait for us all to nod. This is a man that knows that tragedy is the physical comedy of the gods, and his life has been one long blooper reel. Beside him a young white guitarist dressed like Paul Simonon percolated with a rockabilly/Blues sound, and it really wouldn’t have surprised me a bit if he mimicked that famous cover and swung his guitar like an axe into the stage. It only increased my self pity that much more that my friends were in a section up front that was fenced off for really special bracelet-equipped festival-goers, and could see up close the lines in the man’s face. He sung like he could see the lines in theirs.
After the set, I needed a beer and set out for the concession stands with Aaron, who had felt sorry for me and kept me company in my braceletless purgatory. (Of course, I was still wearing that useless orange strip -- everybody else didn’t know that I wasn’t special.) In line, I heard a man wearing an “I got the Blues” T-shirt say to his companion, “That guy sounded like a preacher in a honky-tonk.” I bought a beer and an official King Biscuit Blues Festival foam huggie, and we killed a little time sitting in the grass before the next set.
The Blues are about falling. Jimmy Johnson was up next. He played a forgettable funk-driven Blues, and, since it was a little early in the day for booty-shakin’ but not too early for drinking, I got up in the middle of the set to refresh. Aaron was into Johnson, and stayed around where we had set up in the grass. Walking to the concession stands, I felt like I was in a mall, baby carriage pushing housewives in jumpsuits and groups of aloof high school aged kids in Abercrombie and Fitch wandered the sidewalks. The weird thing was the children.
The stage was in front of a big hill, which tapered of into a steep drop on the back side. Hundreds of kids lined the rim, armed with cardboard strips from who-knows-where, free of parental authority, and sliding at an alarming speed down the grassy slope in all ways: on their stomachs and backs, head-first and feet-first, with a running start or the shoves of playmates. Man, did it look fun. I saw an errant piece of cardboard and had the brilliant idea to go down standing, like a snowboarder. Really show these little kids how the big kids do it.
When I came to, a small child stood above me with his finger in his mouth. “It don’t do it that way,” he said.
The Blues are about disappointment. Levon Helm and the Barnburners played after dinner. The Levon Helm. 1/5 of the Band. He was going to be here. I love the Band, and although all the members, save the Arkansas-born Helm, were from Canada, I always thought of their music as part of my heritage. The Arkansas sound -- ghostly funk country with a Blues edge. Family stories claim that one of our distant relatives, Harold Jenkins, the late, great Conway Twitty, introduced Helm to the rest of the Band. I have a connection with the Band. Awesome.
It was getting dark and my friends had taken fancy-pants spots in the real VIP section, but I was going to get in. The crowd was pretty tight, and I shared my bracelet woes with a drunk guy standing beside me, intermittently yelling “WOOOO”, and spilling beer on himself. We decided that no plastic fencing was going to keep us away from Levon Helm. I let him take the lead.
He ducked under the plastic pseudo-fencing with a grace that betrayed familiarity, and I shuffled under behind him, my head raising up right into his formidable ass. He turned around and fixed me in an uncomfortable glare. “You just put your ass in my head,” he said. I had visions of fists and blood, handcuffs and cement walls and collect calls home, and a much different essay. But he just turned around. “WOOOOOOO!”
I found my friends just as a middle-aged man with a teal sportscoat and a crewcut stepped out onto the stage. “Is that Levon Helm?” one of my friends asked. Levon Helm slid in behind the drums. The band coasted through a set of Blues standards. Technically sound and sort of bland, I couldn’t help but feel like this was the kind of entertainment you could expect in a casino buffet bar. I don’t know exactly what I expected, definitely not “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, but I would’ve liked to hear Helm sing a couple of notes. Instead, I got to see him smile and beat the drums and do what a lot of old musicians seem incapable of: enjoy himself.
The Blues are about sex. Howard Tate still lives in a man’s, man’s, man’s world. The aging soul singer took the stage around eight, taking the place of Snooks Eaglin, who people said couldn’t make it or something. Wearing a white suit and just enough gold, he brought a sexual energy to the stage that I really found a little disturbing. Does Viagra make for better music? What a great drug. Who wouldn’t like an elderly black man that exposes Scott Stapp as the sexless faker that he is? He did it with style, and, if swooning made a sound, it would have been ear-splitting. I always wanted to be a soul man, that is, if for some reason my career in the NFL didn’t work out. Howard Tate is the kind of soul man I would’ve liked to have been.
Bobby Rush was the headliner, which boggles the mind. He put on a sort of sexual novelty act, and his songs were studded with double entendre and innuendo that would make Sir Mix-a-Lot blush. The best thing about him was his look. Geri-curl,silk shirt, and tight black pants. He’s one of those people that make you want to count the days since you last had sex and try to figure out what this guy’s got that you are obviously lacking. At one point, he brought six dancers on stage whose only purpose was to hummingbird shake their asses and look like they were attracted to him. It really was as raunchy as anything I’ve seen on Spring Break Uncensored, sans nudity. I sat slack-jawed through the entire set, then sort of drifted back to the campsite, perplexed, uncomfortable, and a little aroused, like it was closing time at the strip club and there was nowhere to go and no one to go with.
The Blues are about I-don’t-know-anymore. So later on that night I was sitting around with my buddies and my mind was doing backflips trying to register what I had actually seen at the Blues festival. A bespectacled and ponytailed older-looking young man had pulled up a chair around our humble fire and was packing and hitting and packing and hitting a small pipe, and giving us the usual world-weary and troubling homily dished out by most bespectacled and ponytailed older-looking young guys I’ve ever met at places like this. “Man, eight years ago, man, when I came eight years ago, man, it was different. Now it’s all mainstream and backwards. (The festival I am assuming, but this could be a philosophical commentary on the State of Things as we have come to know them.) It was a whole different scene eight years ago. The people, man, the people are just all . . .” By this point, I was rolling my eyes and wishing dude would just shut the hell up already and not even come if this thing is all mainstream and not nearly the soul-throbbing and Earth-shattering event it was eight years ago. And weren’t we, a bunch of first-timers, the people who were marginalizing the sanctity of his romanticized Blues-topia of eight years past? We had a reasonably good, if not Earth-shattering and soul-throbbing time. Were we really being duped or was this guy just older and more full of piss and vinegar than he was eight years ago and experiencing a sort of nostalgia/obfuscation of reality that impeded his ability to allow us to believe that we had a reasonably good time?
Despite my skepticism of the drug-addled pedagogy of this guy, I felt cheated and couldn’t help it. Not only by the proprietors of the festival, but by all these things that I’ve often felt cheated by. It’s sort of like wishing you were born in another time period, like the Old West, just because you like the idea of a cattle drive, and laughed your ass off at City Slickers. What are these cultural tremors that I missed, i.e. the death pronouncements of things like punk and grunge rock and alt. country. After I’ve just discovered them, they’re no longer around. Things I hear about but was too young or out of the loop to notice. If the only effect of these things is nostalgia, did they really exist? (The micro often offers insights to the macro, and if this guy’s twisted history bending abilities can somehow shed light on OUR twisted history bending abilities, it adds a valuable piece to the puzzle and makes many other pieces irrelevant.) If a tree falls over in the forest while no one’s around, it may not make a sound, but you damn sure have to hop over it on your way to grandma's house. I spent the whole Nirvana thing being razzle-dazzled by the unrefined musicality of a band named Poison, but, if Cobain had any real impact, why is bubblegum pop dominating the music scene? Even such celebrated movements as the whole peace thing of the sixties seem in ill-effect these days. Where are the ideas that supposedly shaped a generation now, when the whole make-love-not-war thing is about as evident in the contemporary national psyche as are pterodactyls in our skies? (Come on, people now. Dose up your brother. Everybody get together, try to screw one another, right now.) Are all these things the products of some kind of mass nostalgic suggestion or did they actually take place?
Of course they did. The Delta Blues are still around. They were in everything I had seen that weekend. My entire skeptical outlook on it had little to do with the existence of the Blues and more to do with the size of my microscope. This whole Q and A made the foundations of what I thought I wanted to hear at this festival like so much shale, and flushed my entire skeptical outlook on things like funk and soul and novelty acts taking the place of real blues. The Blues are a part of our culture that can be found everywhere, like pragmatists and hot dogs. I guess what really matters is that I had a good time at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, or I think I did. And even if I didn’t, I can take solace in the knowledge that eight years from now kids’ll have it much worse.
©2001 by Derek Jenkins