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Mississippi: The River of Song and more...


Smithsonian Institution
Americans Old and New1: Americans Old and New2: Midwestern Crossroads3: Southern Fusion4: Louisiana: Where Music is King

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Of the four regions in which this story is divided, it is in this second that the Mississippi River feels most constantly present. In part, that is because of history. This is where the old river highways, the Missouri, Des Moines and Ohio, join the Mississippi for the journey south to the main port of New Orleans, and the towns were defined by the river traffic. By this history, if not by geography, the land bordering the Mississippi as it runs through Missouri and Illinois became for many people the center of the United States. In the nineteenth century, it was the divide between east and west, and traces of that division still hold today. West of the river, the prairies begin, the land of cowboy boots, cattle and myth. East is white America's version of the "old country," the towns that liked to consider themselves as centers of civilization on the border of the barbarous wilderness.
       The railroads would supersede the rivers, but for St. Louis they only confirmed its position as a central meeting place, or at least a central switching yard. The city had long been something of a demarcation point not only between eastern and western United States, but also between the northern and southern halves of the Mississippi. With the railroads, it became the place where east-west traffic by rail switched off to north-south traffic, either by rail or river. In later years, when the national migration pattern became as much from south to north as east to west, it was once again an important point on the journey, and a place where some travelers would choose to remain.
       The region's music reflects this character. It is geographically north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey talk about the area where they grew up, on the Iowa-Missouri border, as being the northern edge of a "lake" of southern culture. Southern sounds are obvious in the work of most of the artists in this section, from John Hartford and the players at the Hillsboro bluegrass festival to the African-American singers and musicians who settled in St. Louis, to the Bottle Rockets, who fused their parents' country music tastes with the hard rock coming in on the radio.
       Though it has both farmland and urban environments, the area around St. Louis provides neither the isolation of the north Minnesota woods nor the burgeoning cosmopolitan feel of the Twin Cities. It feels like a classic, history-book America. At its sunniest, it is the heartland, a place out of Frank Capra movies. Along the once-booming waterfront, it can also seem like a place the modern world has left behind.
       Unlike the people we met further north, many of whose families immigrated to the Mississippi region from the old countries, the settlers in this area largely came from other parts of North America. Ste. Genevieve, among the oldest European settlements west of the Mississippi, was one of the chain of towns founded by the French as they moved along the river between Canada and Louisiana. It remained a popular riverboat town, though it would be overshadowed by cities built at the entrances of the other great rivers, St. Louis at the Missouri junction and Cairo at the Ohio. These towns boomed during the western migration of the 1800s, with the traffic that took the Mississippi as a border between home and the unknown, the final civilized outpost before the great trek across the prairies.
       By the turn of the century, those glory days were largely past. Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, is already looking back with nostalgia on the time before the Civil War and the final victory of the railroads over the river traffic.
       Much of the Euro-American music in this section reflects that same feeling, harking back to a previous time: John Hartford to the old steamboat days, the Ste. Genevieve Guignolée to the early French settlers, and the bluegrass and country gospel singers to a legendary past of simple, rural values and traditions.
       The African-American artists look back as well, but on a much more recent time. St. Louis became a vibrant center of black culture around the turn of the century, and kept that status through the 1950s and early 1960s, when it produced Chuck Berry and was home to Ike and Tina Turner. It was the first industrial center on the migration north, the first city where Delta dwellers could feel like they had arrived in a different world. Unlike the Guignolée, looking back to the eighteenth century, Fontella Bass, Oliver Sain, Eugene Redmond, and Henry Townsend can all easily remember a time when St. Louis was a jumping mecca for black musicians.
       After the multicultural patchwork of the North, the music we find in the central Midwest feels far more cohesive. As befits the region's position in American history, it exemplifies much of what we think of as "American" music, rather than specifically regional styles. The Guignolée aside, the musicians here represent styles that are found throughout most of the country. Fontella Bass and Oliver Sain have an urban African-American sound of the sort found in Chicago, Detroit, or even New York and L.A., though the music scene in those towns might well have forced them in a more contemporary pop direction; the Bottle Rockets and Greg Brown, rooted as they are in their own places, have much in common with the myriad rock bands and songwriters who grew up as music-making misfits in small towns across America. As for bluegrass, or the church songs of the Boundless Love Quartet, they are ubiquitous in rural areas from Florida to Washington State, California to Maine. With the bustle of the north in the past, and the musical motherlode of Southern culture ahead, this is truly the crossroads and the cultural center of the United States.


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