The Rich Musical History in the Arkansas Delta

Kids get hands on history lessons at Parkin Archelological State Park.

Kids get hands on history lessons at Parkin Archeological State Park.

In honor of Black History Month, I decided to go a different way with this week’s blog. Here in Arkansas we have so much to celebrate, yet so few of us know about our rich, colorful history.  This has bothered me for years. Some time ago I asked my grandmother why I had to search so hard to find Arkansas history- why we didn’t have all the historical markers and buildings that other states around us had.  She had one simple reply, “Honey, we come from poor stock.”

This is definitely true.  Though we have some of the most scenic waterways, mountains, hills and hollers, the best farmland, the coolest attitudes, and wouldn’t think twice about helping out our neighbors, for some reason, many thought that the very spirit that built Arkansas was something to be ashamed of.  That humble beginnings in log cabins, clearing land, working hard and raising children was simply something that no one would care about.

The Birthplace of Arkansas Delta Blues

Sadly, a lot of Arkansas history has gotten buried because of that very reason.  Perhaps the best untold story Arkansas has is its ownership of the only pure American form of music.  This is the story of creation.  This is the story of the Arkansas Delta Blues.

Scorching sun, biblical floods, despair, yet faith- the Arkansas Delta was built on extremes. Few lived in the Arkansas Delta before the Civil War.  Some of America’s most fertile soil, left by centuries of the Mississippi’s mighty floods, lay hidden beneath a dense blanket of forest and swamp- a wilderness ruled by bear and panther.  After the war, the Delta became a magnet for former slaves and others down on their luck, looking for a place where through hard work they could fulfill their dreams.

Getting one’s own land took time, dedication, and savings.  In the meantime, most came to work for others, large landowners who would take on sharecroppers.  Sharecroppers went to work with the desire to work a few years and save up enough money to get out.

The restored 1910 Northern Ohio School House interprets the life of timber workers children.

The restored 1910 Northern Ohio School House interprets the life of timber workers children.

At that time, people said their days lasted “from can to can’t.”  That meant that they worked as long as there was enough daylight to see what they were doing. Though they came into sharecropping full of hope, many begin to see that instead sharecropping was like plowing quicksand. Each spring, landowners charged tenants for animals, seed, room, board, supplies, and equipment.  Come fall, high interest rates kept many farmers deeper in debt than they were the year before.

Though times were tough, spirits remained high.  Strong communities like SawDust Hill in Parkin sprang up and offered each other support. African-American churches, river baptisms, and box lunch socials became the center of the Delta folks’ lives. Places like the Northern Ohio School (now a part of Parkin Archeological State Park) offered students and parents hope that one day, their family could break the cycle of sharecropping. But life here in the Delta wasn’t all work and no play, and everyone wanted to get out a little on Saturday nights.

Musicians like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Howlin' Wolf spent their early years playing in places like Parkin, Arkansas.

Musicians like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Howlin' Wolf spent their early years playing in places like Parkin, Arkansas.

The Beatles, U2, The Rolling Stones were all influenced by the music of the Delta

Beale Street in Parkin was the place to be.  With acts like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Sunny Boy Williamson, and many more, where else would you want to be? Here in our fields, on our street corners, and in our juke joints on Saturday nights, African-Americans invented a new kind of music. They called it the Blues.  Juke joints sprang up all over the Delta, and some of the most famous were right around Parkin- West Memphis and Helena also had many famous acts come and play, but perhaps the most famous little juke joint around was the on the Parkin side of Twist, Arkansas.

This particular juke joint in Twist was rural, fun, spirited, and definitely unruly.  On one infamous winter night in 1949, a young B.B King was slated to be the entertainment, but he would soon be upstaged by another kind of show.  As local lore has it, punches began to fly between two men fighting over a woman named Lucille.  After the punches, came the chairs, and after the chairs, well, a kerosene lamp was knocked over and set the whole place ablaze.  Everyone, including B.B., quickly fled outside to safety.  It was about this time though, that B.B. realized in all the commotion he left his guitar onstage.  He rushed back into the burning building to retrieve his guitar, and luckily he made it out with only some minor burns.  He named his guitar “Lucille” that night to remind himself how much trouble a little lady can get you into.

The Blues didn’t just stay here in the Arkansas Delta- they immediately radiated out, all over the South, revolutionizing popular music and becoming America’s only true music form.  Though Blues joints can be found all over the U.S. and even overseas, some of the purest forms can only be found here in Arkansas.

Take an Arkansas Delta Blues retreat weekend- head over to Parkin Archeological State Park and visit the historic Northern Ohio School.  While you get to see one of the last remaining African-American one-room schoolhouses in eastern Arkansas, Park Interpreters can help your kids write their very own 12 bar blues song. Swing over to the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, and enjoy great exhibits on blues superstars, and don’t forget to be on the longest running blues radio show in America- aired live from the museum studio.  Drive down to Lakeport Plantation, the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River, and if you’re lucky, Lake Chicot State Park will be holding Gospel Fest while you’re down there. And last but not least, don’t forget to swing out to Twist, and have your picture taken in front of the sign marking the place where Lucille got her name.

Experience Arkansas history dating back to 1000 A.D. and right up into the 1950's at Parkin Archeological State Park.

Experience Arkansas history dating back to 1000 A.D. and right up into the 1950's at Parkin Archeological State Park.

Welcome to my Arkansas- the Arkansas Delta, home of the Blues.  If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by.

 

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter & Friend

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter & Friend

~Mary Anne Parker has been with Arkansas State Parks since 2005, and as Interpreter at Parkin Archeological State Park since 2006.  Mary Anne’s primary focus at Parkin has been on the African-American Experience in the Delta, and she is extremely proud of the growth in community support the park has experienced with the renovation and opening of the Northern Ohio School in 2006. Her other interests and activities include running the Parker Homestead, which she owns and operates with her husband and his parents, and writing grants to further educational opportunities for students attending Arkansas Delta public schools.

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12 Responses to The Rich Musical History in the Arkansas Delta

  1. Bonnie Talley Polston says:

    I love your site! My Grandfather worked for “The Twist Plantation”, but he would have begun working there around 1919, when my Dad was about six years old! He was a “Rider”, and alot of stories have been handed down! Thank you for posting this!

    • Mary Anne Parker says:

      You’re more than welcome! We are so fortunate to be in a rich cultural area like this where stories abound.

    • Anonymous says:

      Somebody I knew claimed he was from Twist, Arkansas, and played electric guitar in a “garage band” in Springfield, Missouri. This was back in the late 60’s. He went to Drury University in Springfield, and I believe his dad owned a rice plantation around Twist. Does that ring any bells?

  2. Chuck Porter says:

    Looking for any information on the lady that B.B. King’s guitar was named after. It is my understanding that she worked on the “Twist Brothers Plantation” in the mid 50’s. Also, a possible name for the “jook joint” that burned down. Thought someone might remember a name or 2.

    • Mary Anne Parker says:

      Chuck- email me and I will see what I can find out for you. I know Miss Lucille worked at the juke joint, and I know a few names that might help you out.

    • I have been told by a countless number of farm hands that Babe Mason was one of the men involved in the fight. Our kids nanny, Opal Ansley (we love and miss her), said her mother was the cook in the juke joint. She said the place had food and music downstairs, and prostitution upstairs. Her dad got beat with a belt on Twist for not showing up for work; she said she hated all white men until she found religion. A few people have named Lucille Martin as the gal, but others say it was not her. Unfortunately, that is the only name I have been given. Jack Cothran, of Parkin, reportedly gave BB King his first dollar bill for playing guitar down on the Gene Rolf Plantation south of town.

      I would like to know more about the life and times of Chester Bernette, aka Funny Paper (Papa) Smith & the Howlin’ Wolfe when he lived in Parkin (1933). Where did he live? There are references to “a plantation near Parkin”.

      Can’t find any songs about Parkin, other than the country tune written by Toy Norwood, but I really like the Shelby County Workhouse Blues by Hambone Willie Newbern who talks about Marked Tree. I would love to have a collection of tunes about local towns.

      • Someone needs to interview Leonard (BB’s son) King’s mother, Fanny, in Parkin. She could probably answer all of our questions. I can’t remember his name, but a truck driver I once knew married one of Fanny’s sisters. All he could talk about for hours at a time is the beauty of the three sisters. I remember them living on 75 highway north of Parkin, but I have never met them.

      • Faye Futch says:

        Kenn, Howlin’ Wolf lived on the Nat Phillips Plantation out at Togo. It was located across the road from the Harris Family Farm. The guitar was not named after Lucille Martin but after Lucille Royston. She is buried in the Harris Family Cemetery on the grounds of the Shady Grove M. B. Church. Lucille was a relative of Jimmy Harris and his family.

  3. Ray Bostian says:

    Enjoyed your article very much, Mary! I grew up on a rental cotton farm in Jefferson County and witnessed first hand the poverty of the black field hands that worked for us and others. Also, the black and white sharecroppers–including our family. Though I was never included in the blues crowds (a staunch Baptist!), I can see how the Blues developed and grew under the circumstances. The name for a juke joint near us was “The Jolly Jumping Frog!” It didn’t last long!

  4. robertlfs says:

    Great blog. Parkin certainly is in the vanguard of interpretation from prehistory to the present. Keep up the fantastic work!

  5. Rachel Engebrecht says:

    Fascinating story about B.B. King!

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