The Arkansas Blues Connection was formed by several blues fans in June of 1984 as the 1st chapter of the Blues Foundation. The purpose was to help preserve and promote Arkansas blues, and create a stronger environment for the musicians. This Little Rock group was instrumental in helping form all of this state's foundation affiliated societies, as well as the Tulsa Blues Club. The original group was based in Marty Cramer's Delta Blue Note on 2nd Street in Little Rock. The country's longest continuous weekly blues jam began there, hosted by guitarist John Craig, who became a mentor for dozens of aspiring guitarists through the years. Several bands were formed and musician's careers developed through involvement with the jams. ABC officers worked hand in hand with the Blues Foundation, helping instigate the W.C. Handy Awards, the International Blues Talent Competiton, while attending all the major conferences, seminars and workshops. The first few post Handy Award Jams on Beale Street were run by Little Rock volunteers. Several ABC officers and members became disc jockeys at KABF 88.3 FM Radio, developing a decades long tradition of working together to promoting blues programs, projects and live shows. The ABC began mailing a regular newsletter to all members, affiliated societies and blues labels. Regular articles and photographs have been submitted to the Nightflying Entertainment Guide. The ABC was involved with the History of the Blues course at the University of Arkansas, and presented lectures and performances at the University of Southern Arkansas at Magnolia. In 1986, the ABC received a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council, and in 1987 won the W.C. Handy "Keeping the Blues Alive Award" for Blues Society of the Year. The longtime home for the Tuesday night jam was Juanita's on Main Street, where the ABC had an office and meeting space. It was the natural stopover for any touring blues artists, coordinating with the ABC on many big name acts. Also, fundraisers and benefits for the food pantry, the homeless, musician's medical needs, SIDS and scholarships have always been a major focus in the blues community. From 1984 thru the mid 90's, the Arkansas Blues Connection produced over 20 outdoor festivals, most at Riverfront Park, featuring some of the biggest names in the blues. These were made possible by dozens of volunteers, city participation and major sponsorship money. Circumstances and logistics made these types of festivals more and more difficult to produce, so the focus has turned to Helena. In the mid 90's, the ABC morphed into the Arkansas River Blues Society, and has maintained a regular jam at several different clubs through the years. Blues bands and clubs come and go, but several blues fans have maintained a group of officers and Board of Directors that is a 501-C3 non-profit organization, still affiliated with National Blues Foundation. A talent contest is held every year with the winners in the band and solo categories representing Little Rock at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis at the end of January. Several Little Rock winners have gone on to place in the top 3, and most notably, Camden native, Michael Burks won the Albert King Award for Guitarist of the Year. This, along with society support, certainly helped Michael go on to beome one of the most popular players in the world, unfortunately leaving us way too early. There are dozens of Arkansas bluesmen who have had to go elsewhere to make a living. Outside of Helena, not much is known about the rich blues history in other parts of Arkansas, the successful careers of Fenton Robinson, Son Seals, or even the great Brinkley superstar, Louis Jordan. The mid 1900's saw a vibrant jazz and blues scene in Little Rock, especially the nightclubs on 9th Street, which was bulldozed down and turned into a highway back in the 60's. Also not spoken about is the accepted segregation, or cultural divide in Central Arkansas. Lots of events go on in the black community, that is not reported on in the white media. But, that is a subject for another article. It is now a much more eclectic world, harder than ever to make a living performing blues based music. When you look at towns around the country with vibrant blues scenes, it always because of the support of local blues societies. If you are a blues fan or a musician, you should get involved in your local blues society, attend local and regional performances, attend a jam, volunteer for a festival, or just follow online. The blues needs all the support it can get especially historical awareness among our young community.
(This article was written by Jeff Weeden who has been instrumental from the inception and continues to be a major supporter of the genre of blues music and the Arkansas River Blues Society.)