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The Blues Never Die

There is a tiny, crumbling town in the Arkansas delta where spirits glide among the ruins, and in the liminal space between dusk and dark, if you get real quiet, you can hear, ever so faintly, the strains of a blues guitar. Hold your breath and lean in. It’s Robert Lockwood, Jr – couldn’t be anyone else – playing a song you’ve never heard before, plaintive and haunting, the kind of blues that breaks your heart. The voice is faint and you can’t quite make out the words, but then a piano joins in and the whole mood changes. Exhale and relax. That boogie-woogie sound belongs to Pinetop Perkins and people drift outside to listen, ears tuned to the song on the wind. And now, a harmonica. Sonny Boy Williamson; you’d recognize that freight train-chugging anywhere. They jam, Lockwood, Perkins, and Williamson, and the camaraderie is evident. They were born, each of them, with an otherworldly gift. The song fades, leaving as it arrived, on the enchanted breeze. You’ve been listening to ghosts. Sip your drink and take it all in. Evening in the Arkansas delta.

Morning dawns with air as thick as syrup, but you’ve been told that a visit to Helena is not complete without a stroll down Cherry Street. It isn’t until you reach the very end of it that you understand why. A faded wooden sign above a torn awning advertises This Little Pig Antiques, but that’s a bit misleading – just a jumble of dusty, straight-back chairs and a lamp or two. Far more interesting are the posters, strewn as haphazardly as the chairs. Deteriorated by decades of exposure to light and moisture, they are nonetheless exquisite, for they bear the signatures of legends – the extravagant loops of Delbert McClinton, the scrawl of Billy Boy Arnold, the economic precision of Carey Bell – and you wonder what kind of magician managed to conjure this collection. You have arrived at Bubba’s Blues Corner. 

The Blues Never Die Rhonda Shook

It’s locked up tight and there are no lights on, but that doesn’t stop you from pressing your snooping nose to the glass and peering in.  A mishmash of musical memorabilia, the likes of which you have never seen, is hanging crooked in frames or leaning against the walls. It’s tacked to makeshift bulletin boards, spilling on to counters, and stacked in every corner. You recognize B.B. King, but there’s Bobby Rush, too. It’s dim in there, and the windows are humidity-fogged, but you’d swear that was Levon Helm smiling back at you. You take a step back and bump into a man who seems more amused than annoyed with the collision. Strange that you hadn’t noticed his reflection.  

You apologize and tell him you’re pretty sure there are ghosts in there. He tells you he’s pretty sure you’re right. He snaps his flip phone closed and asks if you want to take a look. This is the man, himself, Bubba Sullivan. He’s famous for being a founding member of the King Biscuit Blues Festival and a life-long champion of the genre. 

The Blues Never Die Rhonda Shook

He lets you in with an apology. There’s no air-conditioning. You’re not surprised; there’s hardly a roof. Although it’s only shortly after breakfast, the temperatures are soaring. A familiar face draws you into the room. “John Kay?” 

“He’s one of the most interesting guys…” Bubba grins, his prominent white mustache lifting. He’s surprised you recognize him, the former frontman of ‘60s groundbreaking rock band Steppenwolf; you don’t seem the type. Your mind blinks back to the long-haired, bell-bottomed, sixth-grade you, clutching your beloved Steppenwolf notebook, its lycanthropic face teeming with hidden images. You argued with friends over the lyrics to Magic Carpet Ride, smugly convinced that you were the only one who understood that song. 

You glance around the room, and your eyes don’t know where to land. Classic, impossible-to-find-elsewhere vinyl albums soften and warp in their jackets. Photos of music legends curl at the edges, straining against the thumbtacks that pin them in place. Johnnie Johnson and the Kentucky Headhunters, Buddy Miles and Reba Russell, Katie Webster and the Cate Brothers. And Bubba Sullivan, hugged up to Robert Plant. You swear under your breath and he chuckles. Turns out, they’re pals.

He’s leaned back in a creaky rolling chair, fingers interlaced behind his head. He enjoys watching people discover his treasures. You ask about the ghosts you’ve been hearing… and seeing, and Bubba launches into what will be the first of many stories. This one is about him and Levon, beer and barbeque, and Jimmy Reed. This was “ground zero,” as Bubba describes it, the place to hang out, pick a guitar, drink a beer, and most importantly, tell a story. 

You unpin John Kay and read his loving inscription: “To Bubba: Thanks for helping the blues stay alive”. No wonder they’re all haunting the place. Thanks, Bubba. 

You intended to take a photo of Bubba in front of his store, but by the time we finished talking, he needed a nap. You had intended to ask him a few questions and be finished within half an hour, but once he starts telling stories, you just get out of his way and let him. Hours passed. A storm blew up, but it ran out of steam waiting on us and just gave up.