Thursday, 12th June, West Helena, Arkansas 11 a.m.
It was part of the “Gospel and Blues Tour” from the American Queen steamboat. Two coachloads of forty-two. I was starting to feel dubious about the blues and gospel depth of the tour, as the talk on Helena, Arkansas had missed its two most important connections: The King Biscuit Flour Radio Show and of course Sonny Boy Williamson II (Sonny Boy being a King Biscuit brand).
We stopped outside the African-American Greater First Baptist Church in West Helena, Arkansas, and as we went in the choir were all singing “What A Fellowship”. About sixteen local people, no gowns, but mostly people had on something red to look uniform. Some had kids with them. A fantastic loud drummer and keyboard player, and how nice to see a 19th century wooden church with a Lesley Speaker next to the pulpit.
I felt kind of voyeuristic at first, in that we were tourists with cameras, 95% white, being performed to in someone’s community. But the pastor greeted us all with such warm enthusiasm, and said people had taken time out from their lives and jobs to sing for us. I guess the cruise line made a good contribution to church funds, plus there was a collection and we all must have bought a CD of a previous peformance.
As soon as the second song (Battle Hymn) started and we all started clapping hands it was all dispelled. There were three lead singers, and the main one (far right of picture) had the most powerful deep, rich soul delivery I have ever heard. Great powerful drumming too, and the keyboard emphasizing the bass line. The third song was I Need Thee.
They switched vocalists, but then three numbers in the first vocalist came down to the floor with four singers. She did an improvised Amazing Grace, almost jazz gospel with such raucous power then four angelic voices behind joined in. We were transfixed. The song will never be the same again.
Another change of singer had everyone on their feet clapping and swaying. One very elderly guy on a Zimmer frame insisted on being helped to his feet to sway and clap with the pastor beaming down at him.
I couldn’t wait to get home and put the CD on. It was so good to see the deep musical wealth of West Helena at first hand. No wonder Levon Helm knew how to sing with soul.
I went out to the bus with the words of Walking in Memphis (a song we saw performed four times in a week, by the time we’d done the Memphis Backbeat tour) echoing in my head:
Tell me, are you a Christian, chile?
Well, I am tonight!
You can see what Marc Cohn meant!