Traveling Along a River of SONG
There's a story that's told about Henry Schoolcraft, the Indian agent and explorer who was the first Caucasian to reach the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Schoolcraft and his party trekked upriver with a small team of Ojibwe guides in the summer of 1832, following the river by canoe as it flowed through lakes named Winnebogishish and Bemidji, through the dense forest of what is now northern Minnesota. When he finally came upon a deep, spring-fed lake that had no feeder streams, he knew he had come to the end of a journey that began nearly three hundred years before, when De Soto crossed the Mississippi in the fall of 1541. The origin of the Mississippi had remained on the misty edges of maps all those years, as Europeans traveled and then settled the rest of the river valley.
Satisfied that he had reached the headwaters, Schoolcraft christened the lake "Itasca," from the middle syllables of the Latin veritas caput, or "true head" (the name sounded enough like an Indian word that it later sent scholars searching for etymological roots in Algonquian and Siouan dictionaries). The Ojibwe guides watched Schoolcraft erect a makeshift flagpole on an island in the lake to stake his claim to the discovery. Later, so the story goes, they told him,
"We've always known where the great river came from."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Schoolcraft wondered.
"No one ever asked."
Twenty-five miles from Itasca on the east shore of Lake Bemidji, we wait at five o'clock on a morning in March 1996, in ten degree cold. We're here to film the early spring sunrise, and the snow that melts drop by drop into rivulets that feed the river. Mist has silvered the reeds along the river's banks, and grass bends into a blanket of snow. Our boots crack through the crust of ice that covers the drifts, and we're careful not to leave tracks in front of the camera.
Before us, the river cuts a black swath through the glimmering snow. The dim predawn light is outside of the camera's range, so we wait. Steam rises from the water and billows from our mouths in the frigid air. We stomp to push the cold from our toes, our parkas stiffen in the wind. When the sun pushes out from the horizon, mist dances on the surface of the river, the ice glistens like a dusting of stars, and we roll.
We rolled, then, on down the river—to the lake country around Brainerd, where we filmed a snowbound Scandinavian fiddle group in the cozy livingroom of a log house, then on to the Twin Cities for a flurry of performances—riot grrrls Babes in Toyland at First Avenue, the rock band Soul Asylum in their warehouse loft, "Spider" John Koerner with a band we dubbed the Minneapolis Folk All-Stars at a bar on the river's West Bank.
We flew on to Memphis, to catch the Kappa Alpha Psi steppers during spring rush at the university, and a teenage drill team filling playing fields with rhythm at the Katie Sexton Community Center. We ate barbecue on Beale Street, then dropped down into Mississippi, to film Big Jack Johnson and the Jelly Roll Kings playing steamy Delta blues at a grocery-store juke joint in Bobo.
The night air in Bobo was eighty degrees hotter than Brainerd. The two locations were worlds apart, united only by their proximity to the river, and by the pleasure and meaning the artists found in their music. The pace of the production was exhausting, but in these first two weeks of shooting we'd begun what we set out to do to explore the remarkable depth of talent and the rich mosaic of human stories that lie in the music played along the Mississippi River.
We returned to the river eight times during a two-year stretch, to film and record music for The Mississippi: River of Song series. We hopscotched north and south to cover the array of music that's played in the communities along the river. We returned to the Minnesota headwaters for a powwow in August, to Arkansas for a fall blues festival, to Missouri for an old French revel on New Year's Eve.
We spent three months on the road with camera and sound crews, traveled a total of 12,000 miles, and shot seventy locations in thirty towns and cities in all ten states that line the Mississippi. We recorded live performances of more than five hundred musicians, interviewed more than a hundred. Wherever possible, we visited them on their home turf: John Hartford piloting the riverboat Twilight in Iowa, the Mississippi Mas Choir at their home church in Jackson, Geno Delafose playing at Slim's Y-ki-ki, a historic zydeco club in Opelousas, Louisiana.
We set out to find lively scenes, to get close to the home base and the grassroots of music in America, and we followed that path where it took us, into a small church in Kentucky and a jam-packed Mexican club in East Moline, a veterans hall in Ste. Genevieve, piano bars in the New Orleans French Quarter.
The path brought us to musicians we'd never heard before, whose songs moved us, and back to musicians we knew, whose songs moved us in new ways.
When we started this project six years ago, we were, like the explorer Schoolcraft, not certain where it would lead us. We were vague about the geography, about which states and cities the Mississippi flows through. Given the undeniable dominance of the mass media and all we had heard about the disappearance of regional culture, we weren't sure we would find enough music in the mid-country that was actually worth listening to.
But remembering Schoolcraft, we made sure to ask, and ask again. We were lucky to stumble onto people along the way who knew how to get where we wanted to go, and were generous enough to tell us. Many were pleased that we were asking, and surprised at our pleasure in what we found, as if to say, "We've always known there's great music being played around here..."
The story we wanted to tell is the story of a living legacy—the blues as they're still sung in the Delta, the powwow songs still sung at the headwaters. We narrowed our search to music that's being played live, for appreciative audiences, by people who still live near the river. We decided we'd travel from the north, with the flow of the river but against the flow of history—the jazz and blues and rock that traveled upriver from the south. This was intentional. By starting in the north, we knew we would discover deepening musical roots the further we traveled, and we'd hear history interpreted in the songs and stories of living musicians.
We followed this path because we believed it would capture something that is often lost in histories and documentaries about music—the liveness of it, for lack of a better word. Something crucial is missed when music is boxed and frozen into eras and races, genres and styles. In reality, music jumps out of these boxes: people hear each other's music, sometimes decades later and musical spectrums away, on the radio, around the campfire, in a foreign language. The music business is dominated by pop radio and record labels, but there are no rules when people get together to play on their own. There's a rare democracy in the making of music, and we wanted to find out how it works.
The musicians understood this idea from the get-go. Babes in Toyland were proud to share the stage with r&b legend Fontella Bass, and drummer Lori Barbero wanted to go along on the powwow shoot. The Memphis Horns knew, much more than we did, what it meant to talk about "Southern fusion." Some musicians were nonplussed that we wanted to include them in the project, others were simply glad that we were paying attention to something so close to their hearts. A few begged off: the ever mercurial Jerry Lee Lewis dropped out a week before the Memphis shoot. But Ike Turner and Merle Haggard signed our releases gratis, and every musician we visited was generous, accommodating, and tolerant of our invasive cameras, mikes, and hot lights.
These musicians populate this book, their stories make up its narrative. They range from Lil' Bob Lewis, a 16 year-old fiddler from Missouri, to 98 year-old country legend Governor Jimmie "You Are My Sunshine" Davis of Louisiana. The saga of music is told in their words and lyrics: how they came to play, where they find inspiration, how they make their lives around music, the heritage they interpret, and the new territories they explore.
To travel down the Mississippi is to journey through a wonderfully varied American community. The journey begins, as it should, with the first Americans, the bands of Ojibwe who live at the headwaters of the river. Along the way, we encounter descendents of the first French settlers in Missouri, African-American ancestors of the slaves who turned the soil of the South into fertile plantations, Germans and Swedes and English who built the factories and cities and farms of the heartland. Some sought refuge along the river centuries ago—the Cajuns migrated to Southern Louisiana from French Acadia in Canada during the 1760s. Others came more recently—Mexicans to the railyards of Moline in the 1930s, Laotian Hmongs to the Twin Cities after the Vietnam War.
Much of our story centers on sharing—learning music from mentors, siblings, and buddies, passing it along to others, who in turn hear something different in the music and make it new again. There's Robert "Junior" Lockwood, who learned guitar from his stepfather, the blues great Robert Johnson. And there's drummer Levon Helm, who sat at Lockwood's knee during live radio broadcasts in the 1940s, and later gave The Band and Bob Dylan a living connection to the roots of the blues.
The river of song is carried by Randy Kingbird, who learned how to drum by banging on metal buckets with an Ojibwe elder in Red Lake, Minnesota. By D. L. Menard, whose idol Hank Williams told him to be proud of his native Cajun songs, and Karl Hartwich, whose first lessons on the concertina came from Syl Liebl, the star of the 1960s polka circuit in Wisconsin.
It is carried by girls in gospel choirs who grow up to be soul stars, and by boys who play trumpet in the high school band and sneak into after-hours clubs to play jazz or r&b. By retired bankers and farmers, who spend their summers swapping bluegrass tunes around the fire, by zydeco dancers dressed to the nines, Ojibwe girls in jingle dresses, Mexican factory workers swirling through ballads of borderland bravura.
In the end, there's something about music that is very much like a river: It takes in whatever comes its way, and what comes with a strong current makes waves. There are tributaries and there are dams, rapids and backwaters, and of course there's the mainstream... well, you get the idea.
It is October 13, 1997. We're standing outside the Flowin' Fountain on Nelson Street, the historic blues strip of Greenville, Mississippi. A storm is rolling in, one of the few times on the road we've seen rain, and the setting sun is streaking the undersides of the black clouds that fill the sky. The sky turns a surreal salmon, and the street fills with a luminescence that warms its tired face.
We're here to shoot a homecoming for Little Milton, a get-together with some old friends at their old hangout, the original "Annie Mae's Cafe." Scrap Iron, Milton's road manager, drinks a soda at the bar, and Peaches cooks up a heaping tray of chicken and rice, as the crew wipes tables and hangs lights from the rafters. When the rains come, the back roof leaks. We drag sound cables through two inches of puddled rain and hope for a respectable turnout.
Milton puts on a show for a small but buoyant crowd of friends. He shares the stage with blues showman Bobby Rush, and the floor fills with dancers. The evening peaks with a spine-tingling song by Little Bill Wallace, Milton's mentor and boyhood idol. He croons with a practiced, unforced tone, Milton answers him on guitar, and we are transported back to the 1940s, when Milton first heard Bill on the radio, promoting snuff and his weekly gig.
After the show, we sit down with Milton and his friends, while the sound crew strikes the mikes. He is in high spirits, nursing a shot of whiskey, and there's so much ribbing going on that we wonder how we'll ever edit the repartee into a coherent interview. Then Bobby Rush offers a thought: "I call this man the daddy of my career, because of what he's shared with me—how to do it, when to do it, and when to shut up. I watched and I saw him survive with nothing. I watched and I said, 'Milton, if you can do this with nothing, you're a bad man.'"
Milton returns a gracious nod, but demurs. "My chest ain't sticking up because of it." he says, "but I believe the blessings that have been bestowed upon me are what the greats of the past era taught me. Old Sonny Boy told me, he said, 'Man, if you can't share what you got with somebody, then that means nobody is gonna have anything to share with you. I didn't quite understand what he was talking about, but he was saying, in order to receive something you should give," Bobby and Milton say the last words in unison. "And once you give it," Milton finishes, "even if that person don't give it back, don't stop there. Share it with somebody else."
We've neared the end of our travels and we're ready to pack it in, but our ears perk up when we hear these words, because we've never heard it said so well. By a circuitous road and often by chance, we've come to what might be the heart of the matter, the place where connections are made and all paths taken seem predestined. There are many eloquent words spoken in this book, but Milton's are the ones to remember:
"Share it with somebody else."
The River of Song project would never have left the dock without the early support of two major partners: Paul Johnson of Smithsonian Productions and Mitsuo Kojima of Kajima Vision Productions. They later became the executive producers of the TV and radio series, but they began as the midwives of what started out as a loosely framed question: What would we find if we made a journey along the Mississippi, looking for the best contemporary music we could find?
We turned first to music writers for answers, Elijah Wald foremost among them. Elijah is deeply versed in the music of the world, American music in particular. He steered us to stories that illuminated the lives of American musicians, then he helped us find the way there. He conducted most of the interviews, and he has written this book out of a mountain of raw material. Other writers helped guide us: Peter Guralnick wrote an early treatment for music along the Lower Mississippi; Ben Sandmel, Robert Gordon, Harper Barnes, and John Sinclair all shared the insight gained from years of searching in similar waters.
Key guidance came from a network of folklorists who have studied, preserved, and promoted indigenous American music for decades. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies was, for us, the hub of that network: thanks to Richard Kurin, center director; Diana Parker, director of the annual Festival of American Folklife; senior ethnomusicologist Tom Vennum, an expert on the Ojibwe drum; and Tony Seeger, director of Folkways Recordings and head of our advisory board.
Their contacts ran the length of the river, a small army of field researchers who have fanned out across the country in recent decades to document and record music in the backroad towns, farmhouses, churches, juke joints, and bandstands of America. All proved knowledgeable, and generous with their time and support: Phil Nusbaum in Minnesota; Wisconsin polka expert Richard March; Iowa state folklorist Rachelle Saltzman; Ray Brassieur in Missouri; Judy Peiser and David Evans in Memphis; Jim O'Neal, Worth Long, and Bill Ferris in Mississippi; Scott Billington, Nick Spitzer, Barry Ancelet, Bruce Boyd Raeburn, and Mike Luster in Louisiana. Many others stepped up during the years to help us shoot performances and interviews in the best possible venues—the clubs and schools and churches and music festivals whose names appear throughout the text.
Most of all, we were welcomed into the homes and studios and hearts of the musicians, who taught everyone involved in the project so much about the spirit and soul of music.
Production was coordinated by Cathleen O'Connell, preproduction was handled by Jana Odette and Cynthia Johnson. Theo Pelletier served as associate producer and staff photographer. Additional production credits appear at the end of the book. Thanks for advice and support to editor Bill Anderson, Michal Goldman and the members of the Filmmakers Collaborative, Charles Camp, and Marc Patcher, Karen Loveland, and many other colleagues at the Smithsonian.
Leah Mahan coordinated production of this book, with assistance from Samantha Head. Thanks to designer Martine Bruel, for turning stories and images into this book; to Dick McDonough for hooking us up with Martine and with a supportive, music-loving editor in Cal Morgan; and to the production team at St. Martin's, for getting the book out on the streets.
John would like to thank his family: my wife Kaoru who helped hatch this idea in New Orleans ten years ago; Maya who was not born when we started and begins kindergarden in the fall; Kai who will be three when this book comes out. Thanks also to my parents and siblings and friends, who bucked me up over the years.
Elijah would like to thank John for the phone call that brought me on board; my editors at the Boston Globe, who never complained when I headed off to the river; Preacher Jack, who kept my energy up during a couple of hard years; and Cathleen and Theo, who stayed up drinking when sensible people were in bed.
– John Junkerman, Director of River of Song project
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