Monday, November 1, 2010

New Book "Sucks the Romance" Out of the Mississippi River

Not too long ago, this review of a Mississippi River book got my attention:
Admit it: At some point in your life you got a little misty-eyed over the Mississippi River. Maybe it was your first trip to its shores, maybe it was a youthful infatuation with Mark Twain. Maybe you just really love floating, depressing casinos. But even today, when the river that symbolically divides America between East and West can be easily traversed by hundreds of bridges and whose whims are tamed by a series of locks and dams, people still get romantic about the mighty river...Maybe you should be reading Lee Sandlin’s new book, Wicked River (Pantheon, $26.95), as an antidote.


(You can find Sandlin's book at Amazon...)

Here is a little more on this book: (from the author's book description):

A riveting narrative look at one of the most colorful, dangerous, and peculiar places in America's historical landscape: the strange, wonderful, and mysterious Mississippi River of the 19th century.

Beginning in the early 1800s and climaxing with the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Wicked River brings to life a place where river pirates brushed elbows with future presidents and religious visionaries shared passage with thieves. Here is a minute-by-minute account of Natchez being flattened by a tornado; the St. Louis harbor being crushed by a massive ice floe; hidden, nefarious celebrations of Mardi Gras; and the sinking of the Sultana, the worst naval disaster in American history. Here, too, is the Mississippi itself: gorgeous, perilous, and unpredictable. Masterfully told, Wicked River is an exuberant work of Americana that portrays a forgotten society on the edge of revolutionary change.

And here's an excerpt provided by the publisher, Vintage:

The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild

An excerpt

Keelboat on the Mississippi
To the tourists, the passing landscape was pure monotony; the British travel writer Frances Trollope wrote that the Mississippi was “dismal,” “wearisome,” “a huge and turbid river with a low and slimy shore,” and complained that there was nothing to the scenery but “forest – forest – forest.” But a voyageur learned to see every stretch of the river as unique. He needed only one glance at the banks to tell where on the thousands of miles of its course he was. Some didn’t even need to raise their eyes to the banks: they could tell their location from the color of the river surface alone. There were even some connoisseurs who boasted they could do it with their eyes closed, just from how the water tasted.
The river was sky-blue near its headwaters, in the white-pine forests of the far north. The pines came down to the banks and their roots tangled there in fantastic thorny profusion, and they gave the water a clean pungent tang of pine oil. A little to the south the water became a deep blue-green as the pines gave way to densely overgrown woodlands of oak and elm and maple. The banks grew more lush: in the marshes and along the sloughs and streams were waving fields of cattails and goosefoot and buttonbrush, and below the water surface in the shallows were mile-long beds of mussels. The marshes were crowded with countless squabbling crowds of wading birds. The river was busy with fish, with catfish and gar and bowfin and buffalo fish and bluegill and walleye; they were so abundant that people claimed there were places where you could cross the river by walking on their backs.
By the time the river reached the sandstone bluffs and prairies of Iowa and Illinois, it had become an olive green with hints of brown. Here and there were long wine-red stains trailing along the shallows; the color was from the tannin that had leached from ancient bogs. By that point the forests on either side had thinned out, and the land had opened up. The river ran for hundreds of miles through the long-grass prairie. The voyageurs would see nothing but the ruffled grass rising and falling in slow swells all the way out to the horizon. In the spring the prairie was a riot of gorgeous wildflowers, endless washes and shoals of white asters and black-eyed Susan and pink phlox and sky-blue spiderwort. In the summer the grasses were ten feet high and were swarmed by game animals like antelope and deer and bison; there were black ragged clouds of passenger pigeons so numerous that a single swarm could take days to pass overhead. In the autumn the grasses turned brittle, and were easily set ablaze; after a thunderstorm there’d be a pall of smoke hanging over the horizon marking the spots where the lightning had started fires. Sometimes at night there was a brilliant line of flame edging down a distant hillside, below a titanic churn of smoke underlit by the glare. Now and then the fires swept down to the riverbank, and the voyageurs would be whisked unwillingly along an interminable billowing curtain of smoke and flame. They would be choking and coughing the whole way, and frantically checking the boat to make sure that the burning cinders and tufts of blown grass weren’t threatening to stampede their livestock or torch their cargo.
At the southern edge of the prairie was the confluence with the Missouri. The Missouri was a furious torrent bright red with the clays of the Great Plains. Its water was sour and gritty, “too thick for soup but too thin to plow;” its current was so strong that for miles south of the junction it flowed beside the Mississippi in the same bed without mingling, a swift narrow plume of reddish cream next to a wider swath of greeny murk. Gradually they churned together into an odd pale soup that looked like yellow ash stirred into dark oil. The forests closed in again on either bank. These were some of the densest and lushest woodlands in America. The marshes and canebrakes were tangles of starflower, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, and may apple; there were matted beds of maygrass, wild bean, sumac, arrowhead, knotweed, little barley, hickory, and goosefoot. The trees were scrub willow and cottonwood, pin oak and green ash, hackberry and persimmon, black willow and sycamore and honey locust and box elder and pawpaw. They towered up in countless pillars more than a hundred feet tall; the leaf canopy was a remote web of green and black almost up to the clouds.
Then the Ohio glided in from the east. It was wide and placid, and its blue water was so rich with topsoil that in some lights it looked black. Its taste was velvety; it was said that if you drank enough of it your sweat would be as sweet as dew. It, too, held aloof from the main current for many miles. But gradually it blended in, and the result was a rich, murky, chocolaty gold. This was the characteristic color that travelers came to associate with the river. It wasn’t very appetizing to drink; the fastidious travelers in the lower valley made a habit of letting the water stand for at least a half an hour, to allow the grit and filth a chance to settle out. The hardcore river people didn’t bother. They’d just dump a bucket into the current and guzzle it down straight. They liked to claim the river silt was good for you. They called it “the true Mississippi relish.”
Meanwhile the forests were growing more tropical. Water oaks and water maples were interspersed with catalpas and wild cherries and tupelo gums; there were palmettos unfolding their green spearlike fans and vast stands of gloomy cypress. Along the water’s edge were endless tessellations of Chinese lotus, and the marshlands were radiant with orchids and passion flowers and hibiscus. Beaver and otter splashed in the sloughs and creeks; the woods were haunted by wolves and panthers; and the air was a deafening riot of millions of songbirds.
The river unfolded into the delta, and the sloughs and bayous and marshes and swamps thickened all around it. The water became at times a pale luminous green that reminded some travelers of lime soda. Its taste was like bitter mildew. On either side the banks were marshy and gloomy. Water moccasins and alligators seethed through the mud; the deep green of the swamp forests was spangled with crossvine and trumpetvine, cinnamon fern and Cherokee rose, silverbell and blue lobelia, lilies and hyacinth and hydrangea and yellow jasmine. The river glided on past endless receding processions of cypress shrouded in Spanish moss; here and there were silent lagoons in perpetual gloom. The river meandered among orange groves and stands of magnolia so pungent the smell made some travelers sick.
Then the great swamp forests began to dwindle. The banks on either side melted away into indeterminate ooze that deepened and widened into borders of reeds and cattails more than a mile wide. The last solid land broke up into a maze of little peninsulas and islets and isthmuses dense with rustles of seagrass and sedge, swarmed by countless pelicans. The water shone from thousands of brackish ponds and lagoons and lakes. There was no firm line between the river delta and the salt estuaries. But in the end the last islets fell away, and the great freshwater flood of lime, gold, and brown went streaming serenely out into the blue salt of the Gulf.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker; Civil Rights & Delta Blues, Mississippi

Enjoy the music of this Delta Bluesman...John Lee Hooker.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Story of Stagger Lee Crosses Over to The Mississippi Delta Blues

Stagger Lee Portrait

It all went down on December 25th, 1895. Stagger lee Shelton was an African American cab driver and pimp convicted of murdering William “Billy” Lyons on Christmas Eve, 1895 in St. Louis,Missouri. Why is this story so important to the Delta Blues?

...Because Good old Stagger Lee had many a song written about the incident, writes this delta blues blogger...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Staples Singers Inducted Into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1999

The Staple Singers have been called “God’s greatest hitmakers.” Steeped in the music of the church, this singing family from Mississippi crossed into the pop mainstream without compromising their gospel roots. Fronted by patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the Staple Singers have left an imprint of soulful voices, social activism, religious conviction and danceable “message music” across the decades since the release of “Uncloudy Day” in 1956.

Inducted: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1999
More --
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Clarksdale, Mississippi Blues Museum Features Muddy Waters Cabin

The remains of the cabin from Stovall Farms where Muddy Waters lived during his days as a sharecropper and tractor driver are displayed in the gallery. Musicologist Alan Lomax recorded Muddy on the front porch of this shack for the Library of Congress in 1940....

Take a look.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Join the Revelator - Blind Willie & Son House

Blind Willie Johnson - John the Revelator. From an Anthology of American Folk Music

Well, he wasn't from the Delta but--

Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 near Brenham, Texas (before the discovery of his death certificate, Temple, Texas had been suggested as his birthplace). When he was five, he told his father he wanted to be a preacher, and then made himself a cigar box guitar. His mother died when he was young and his father remarried soon after her death.

Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie's father, but into the face of young Willie.

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Now, here's Delta Bluesman Son House doing this song--

Son House was born two miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Around age seven or eight, he was brought by his mother to Tallulah, Louisiana, after his parents separated. The young Son House was determined to become a Baptist preacher, and at age 15 began his preaching career. He taught himself guitar in his mid 20s, after moving back to the Clarksdale area. House was inspired by the work of Willie Wilson and began playing alongside Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson and Fiddlin' Joe Martin around Robinsonville, Mississippi, and north to Memphis, Tennessee, until 1942.

House spent time in the Delta's infamous Parchman Prison after killing a man, allegedly in self-defense, in approx. 1929. H was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree. Son was wounded in the leg, and shot the man dead. He received a 15-year sentence at Parchman Farm prison.

Son House recorded for Paramount Records in 1930 and for Alan Lomax from the Library of Congress in 1941 and 1942. He faded from public view until the country blues revival in the 1960s when he was "re-discovered" in June 1964 in Rochester, New York, where he had lived since 1943.

House had been working for the New York Central Railroad and was unaware of the international revival of enthusiasm for his early recordings. He went on to tour extensively in the US and Europe and recorded for CBS records.

House played at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in July 1965, and the October 1967 European tour of the American Folk Festival along with Skip James and Bukka White.

Son House can be seen in the documentary "The Howling Wolf Story". House and Howlin' Wolf (also from the Delta) had been close early in Wolf's career. In the summer of 1970, House toured Europe once again, including an appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival; a recording of his London concerts was released by Liberty Records.

In 1974 he retired once again, and later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery.