The King Biscuit Blues Festival has been a Delta tradition since 1986, and for almost two decades of that time, Munnie Jordan has been the Executive Director. We wanted to get a feel for the Biscuit through her eyes (and ears).
JD Nash for American Blues Scene:
How long have you been the Executive Director of the King Biscuit Blues Festival?
Going on 16 years. I’ve retired three times and every time it gets turned upside down and I go back again. I started in the 90s and did five or six years, then I went back in 2008 and did five or six years, and in 2016 I came back again, and I’m here now.
What keeps drawing you back to that position?
Actually what draws me back is this little town that we live in needs the King Biscuit Blues Festival. It’s just a must for us to keep it going here in the Delta. It’s our heritage. It’s our culture, and we want to celebrate it.
Of the hundreds of blues festivals around the country King Biscuit is one of the most prominent. People come from all over the world for this right?
Oh, absolutely! We get visitors from all over the world. In fact, I have fifteen people with American Music Tours from Germany that come every year. I have a tour company also called Delta Heritage Tours and American Music Tours comes every year bringing 15 to 30 people from Germany every year. The Netherlands are here like crazy, Croatia, they’re just from everywhere.
What do you think makes it that popular?
I think because it’s very authentic. This is where the blues started, up and down this Delta region on the Mississippi River. Memphis, Helena, Clarksdale, that’s where it all started. Our stage is right on the Mississippi River. It’s a permanent stage and the people sit up on the levee bank. I think they love that. It just feels good. Plus the town is small, and people like it. They just feel good when they’re here.
But there’s more than one stage right?
There are five stages. Our main stage is the only one you have to pay to get into. All the other four are free. It’s a main street in Helena which is like five blocks, then right to the west of that is Walnut Street which we use for our barbecue contest. It all takes place in a five block area. We also have people who have camped out now for 34 years. The same people along the river bank. We call it “Tent City.” They elect a mayor, and just come back, and come back. That’s within walking distance too.
You say there’s a barbecue contest?
Yes. It’s a Kansas City sanctioned barbecue contest. We have 18 to 20 teams and then we have a “People’s Choice.” On Saturday afternoon for $10 you can go in and taste everybody’s barbecue and vote on who you think is the best.
How many people usually attend the festival?
That is a good question because we only have the one stage that’s gated and where tickets are required. The only way to tell how many people are there is to count how many tickets you sold. 8,000 people can fit in that area (at any one time), and it’s always packed. Now up and down the street we have no idea, but we figure 30 to 35 thousand people over the 4 days.
And what’s the population of Helena?
12,000. Lots of people here make their money for the year during this 1 to 2 week period. People start coming in 2 weeks ahead of the festival. Everything is booked up all up and down. Clarksdale, Tunica, all the casinos, get booked up a year ahead. If they stay there this year they go ahead and make their reservations for next year.
In your 16 years as Director, what’s your best memory?
My best memory is, and it gives me chills still to this day, after I retired the first time in 1997, it was in the hands of Main Street Helena. They, at that time, sold it to a man from Memphis, anyhow long story short it finally came back to the Sonny Boy Blues Society. But they lost the name. The name got changed to Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival. When I came back that time in 2008, we found the guy that owns the trademark to King Biscuit Blues and we called him. He said, “Absolutely, you may use the name.” So right before BB King came on stage in 2010, we announced to the crowd that we got the name King Biscuit Blues Festival back. Then last year, we got the name in perpetuity for no fee. He was charging us $10,000 a year to use the name. Last year he agreed to let us use it for 99 years at no charge. Oh my goodness, that was so exciting. The people on the levee went crazy when we announced “The Biscuit is back!”
What about your favorite performance?
I will say it was BB King that night in 2010. That’s mine. Now you’ve got to remember I’m not a big blues person. I mean I do have my opinion but I’m not a hard core, blues know-it-all person. I more organize the festival, fund raise, keep it going and gather volunteers. Then there’s the music committee that brings in all the acts.
There are several performers that come back year after year because they love your festival.
Yeah, Paul Thorn, Bobby Rush, Anson Funderburgh, they all love it here. Three or four years ago we started Warm-Up Wednesday, and we honor a blues artist that has performed here almost every year. We’ve done Bobby Rush, Anson Funderburgh, Bob Margolin, and this year we’re doing Billy Branch. We just try and honor them with a plaque and thank them. It’s an icon. King Biscuit Time is the oldest running blues radio program in the country, and it started here in 1941. Everybody knows that name.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
Well, let me see. I’ll tell you what I like. Two years ago we brought back the Rising Biscuit Stage. We used to call it that. We brought it back as Doctor Ross Stage. Then last year we changed it to Cedell Davis Stage. We’ve got that set up on Walnut just one block west of Cherry Street. The people who play on that stage are absolutely, authentic, real blues without all the pomp and circumstance. That’s a highlight of the festival for me. It’s just kind of laid back, although it is getting bigger and bigger each year.
And you have a Gospel stage as well.
We do have a Gospel Stage. That’s indoors in the renovated old Malco Theater. That’s on Friday night and Saturday night. Saturday morning is the Blues Symposium there. Don Wilcock and Roger Stolle host two panels. This year, for the first time ever with BJ Bank from the Bartlett Songwriters Alliance in Bartlett, Tennessee, we’re doing a Songwriter’s Workshop in the Malco. We’re really excited about that. Every year we try to add something else. And don’t forget we have our Bit of Blues for children up to the age of 18. We bring 450 school children down on Friday morning. Everybody gets a free harmonica, and a free harmonica lesson. We feed them lunch and then we take them all to the Songwriter’s Workshop to teach them how to write a song. Then they get to enjoy the entertainers on the blues stage.
Are your sponsors primarily local business owners?
Oh no. Slim Chickens is a world-wide company out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. They’re our largest cash sponsor. But our sponsors come from everywhere.
“It is an honor to be a part of making the iconic King Biscuit Blues Festival possible each year. Our history, like the blues, is a part of the Delta and King Biscuit is exactly the venue we want to be a part of. We really look forward to connecting to our guests through the power of great music, a shared meal and genuine southern hospitality that runs deep in the Delta.” – Greg Smart, Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer, Slim Chickens.
You also have VIP nights?
Oh yes. It all starts on Warm-up Wednesday when we put out the favorite food of our honoree. Well Billy Branch’s favorite is soul food, so we’ll have cornbread, white beans, fried chicken and stuff like that. Thursday night is our big Arkansas night. That’s when the Governor, Lt. Governor, Miss Arkansas, they all come. Friday is the big VIP party with catfish and barbecue. On Saturday night we have the Wrap It Up Taco Bar with 2 free Pink Cathead Pussycat Cocktails or Four Roses Bourbon Blasts.
If someone has never heard of the King Biscuit Festival what would you tell them is the best reason to attend?
I would say that if you want to understand American history, you have to come to King Biscuit Blues Festival. It’s an American icon of a genre of music that started the entire musical history of this country. Blues is where it started. Then it goes to Gospel, jazz, rock-a-billy, and rock and roll. You just have to start at the core and I think we present it as authentically as it can be presented.