Born By The River


There isn’t a soul alive who knows the Mississippi River better than Captain Clarke ‘Doc’ Hawley. Now retired, the 82 year-old’s pilot’s license once extended over 1,300 miles of the river and its tributaries. In order to be granted this license he was required to draw that entire distance by hand, from memory, five miles to a page. As Mark Twain, a former riverboat pilot himself, wrote in his memoir Life On The Mississippi: ‘In order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know.’

‘Not only do you draw the shape of the river, the sandbars and the bridges, but you draw what’s under the river as well,’ explains Captain Hawley, standing on the bridge of the Steamboat Natchez. We’re docked at the Toulouse Street Wharf in New Orleans, and outside the window cargo barges laden with grain pass silently along the Mississippi. ‘That’s more important than anything, because you need to know where not to drop anchor or you could hook into an oil line. After I drew from Cincinnati, Ohio down to here I thought I could go to work for Rand McNally forever.’

Needless to say, Captain Hawley did not go off to draw maps for a living. Instead he spent 60 years expertly guiding steamboats up and down the mighty river, which has its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and flows south for 2,320 miles before it finds the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. It remains to this day an avenue of commerce, carrying 60% of U.S. grain shipments, 22% of oil and gas shipments and 20% of coal shipments. Yet even more important than its practical use has been its cultural impact on America. It was home to the native Mississippian culture long before Hernando De Soto became the first European explorer to set eyes on it in 1541. During the 20th century, blues, jazz, gospel, R’n’B, soul and rock’n’roll were all born within splashing distance of the river. There must be something in the water.

From his vantage point onboard, Captain Hawley had a unique view of how the culture that grew by the Mississippi shaped America. ‘Jazz really went up the river by boat first,’ he says. ‘Louis Armstrong’s first job was on a riverboat, the steamer Sidney in 1918. I can guarantee that the first jazz that was heard in St Paul, Minnesota was on a boat with a New Orleans band on the dance floor. I remember I was on the boats when rock came in. It was electric! It was a new rhythm that took over America.’

To Captain Hawley, life on the steamboat promised a life of adventure and excitement, just as it had to Mark Twain a century earlier. The river gave the writer, born Samuel Clemens, a way to escape small-town drudgery. He claimed it even gave him his nomme de guerre. ‘His name, in river-talk, means 12 feet,’ explains Captain Hawley. ‘‘Mark Twain’ means two fathoms, which was safe distance. To this day, the Corps of Engineers only guarantees 12 feet of water above Baton Rouge.’

Twain, or rather Clemens, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri – almost 800 miles upriver from New Orleans. His whitewashed boyhood home has been restored and converted into a museum, whose director Henry Sweets stands on the doorstep and points out the proximity of the river. Today it’s devoid of major traffic, a tranquil shadow of its former self. ‘In Twain’s day, the riverbank would have even closer to this house,’ he says. ‘You can imagine how watching the variety of people coming in by boat – from the wealthy to the enslaved – would have implanted the lure of the river in his mind. What’s out there to go and see? When you look at his writings, at Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, or later Pudd’nhead Wilson, you can see how the river was always an influence in his writing.’

Twain was born in 1835, just as the Mississippi steamboats entered their golden age. Their number jumped from just 20 in the 1810s to over 1200 in the 1830s. Many of the boats which ran between St Louis and New Orleans were used to move cotton, rice and other produce of fertile farmland, and there was no land anywhere more fertile than that formed by the thick layers of the Mississippi’s silt deposits.

That land is dotted with tiny rural farm towns like Dyess, Arkansas. It was here that Johnny Cash grew up, picking cotton in the fields from the age of five. The land was prone to flooding, as he described in his song Five Feet High and Rising.

His youngest sister, Joanne, who has a jet black streak in her white hair and her brother’s square jaw, remembers that singing was always part of family life. ‘The music came from the way we lived,’ she says, standing on the porch of the restored farm house in the midst of the paddy fields which stretch out for miles on every side. ‘Most all of Johnny’s songs that he wrote about this area were from experiences that we had here in this very house and on this land. It was a life of hard work, a lot of love, and singing together every day. Johnny was always writing songs and singing the truth.’

In 1954, when Cash was ready to record his songs, he went to Sun Studio in Memphis. By then the studio was already drawing in the greatest musical talent of the Mississippi Delta. The blues had been born in places like the Dockery Plantation, where Charley Patton, considered the godfather of the Delta blues, lived and worked. In 1941 Alan Lomax, touring the Delta to document the musical culture, recorded a then-unknown Muddy Waters at his home on the Stovall Plantation. They set a sound in motion which would soon be heard in ever corner of the planet. Just a decade later, at Sun, Ike Turner wrote Rocket 88 for Jackie Brenston, widely considered to be the first rock’n’roll song.

Memphis still moves to a beat. On Beale Street, the sounds of competing bands echo out of every bar. In the Blues City Cafe, Blind Mississippi Morris is onstage making his harmonica sing beneath a red neon sign that reads LIQUOR. As Morris roars through ‘One Way Out’, a woman takes her partner’s hands and places them on her own hips as she sways. The blues still has the power to move people. When the band takes a break, Morris reminisces about his youth in the plantation fields outside Clarksdale, birthplace of Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and so many other greats.

‘Poverty is what made the blues,’ he says, his low, mellifluous tone cutting through the chatter of the busy venue. ‘It all started back in the cotton fields. Before they were playing music they were singing it a cappella, trying to make the day go. When you’re singing it, all of that is coming through your music. The things you’ve seen, like people being hung. Oh man, that was terrible.’

For Morris, the blues are a way to connect with people and help them to understand his life. ‘You try to tell a story in your music and make them feel exactly what you felt when you had to wake up every day not knowing what you were going to eat,’ he says. ‘All your money from the fields went to the store to pay your debts.’

Of course, blues and rock’n’roll would make a lot of money for some. Across town at Graceland, you can walk the hallowed hallways of Elvis Presley’s mansion, preserved just as the King left it – with a shag-carpeted Jungle Room in the den, and kitschy trinkets like his treasured porcelain monkey dotted about. While his vast wealth and fame may have earned him his regal sobriquet, the Memphis Sound was defined by Stax Records. Their studio is now a museum where you can soak up the energy still trapped in the room where R’n’B and soul hits by the likes of Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and The Staple Singers were all recorded.

Heading south from Memphis through the Mississippi Delta you drive through field after field of cotton and corn. The land is perfectly flat, leaving a vast canopy of sky above which is punctured by nothing taller than a Pecan tree or a church steeple. It was here where European and African culture came together on American soil. From the devastating pain of slavery, from the spiritual thirst of the church congregations and from the sexual heat of the juke joint dancefloors there came the most powerful outpouring of music the world has ever seen.

Many of those rhythms had originated with the slaves who arrived in America at the port of New Orleans, where Twain’s steamboat route ended, near the mouth of the Mississippi. On Sundays, enslaved men and women would come together to drum and sing, keeping their West African traditions alive. The Code Noir, which governed slave ownership in French Louisiana, decreed that they be given the day off as they were expected to convert to Catholicism.

‘Congo Square was the only place like it in the United States,’ says Dianne Honore, a New Orleans tour guide known as Gumbo Marie, as she stands in the square where the slaves congregated. Sheltering from the heat of the afternoon sun under her parasol, she explains how important this place would have been to people like her own sixth generation grandmother Catiche Destrehan, who was born a slave in the city in 1738. ‘Enslaved people would come to celebrate here, practicing their own dancing and their own music.’

The culture of circle dancing and drumming brought from West Africa evolved, as it paraded out of Congo Square, into the tradition of New Orleans jazz funeral processions. ‘We honour our deceased and we celebrate them,’ explains Honore. ‘Of course it’s a sad thing and we’re upset, but we want to celebrate their spirit and the energy that’s still around us.’

Jazz funerals proved to be just too much fun to have to wait until somebody died, so they in turn gave birth to the weekly tradition of brass band parades known as the Second Line. Each Sunday, a large crowd gathers outside a venue such as the Treme Center to meet the band – themselves known as the ‘First Line’. There’s a carnival atmosphere in the air as they dance together past brightly coloured homes and murals celebrating local icons like Louis Armstrong and Dr John. The Second Line flows through the streets, as powerful and irresistible as the Mississippi itself, gathering momentum with every new wave of people who run out of their homes to join in. Soon everyone around is caught in the current of the music, a fierce kind of joy ringing in their souls.

Originally published in Lonely Planet Traveller, September 2018.