Here's some river history and
maybe folklore, too. I'm sure you know that Louis Armstrong played on
Mississippi River excursion boats for the Fate Marable Orchestra. Marable,
who worked for the Streckfus Steamer Company, took a chance on Armstrong
who at the time--it's said--couldn't read a note. Marable, who also
played steam calliope, allegedly taught Armstrong to read music.
These steamboats, which Louis played on for five seasons from 1918 to
1922 (before he went on to Chicago, "King" Joe Oliver, and
American iconography) traveled between Nawlins and Rock Island, Illinois.
I see their northbound journeys as mythic, carrying Dixieland culture
upriver through the American heartland, corrupting "decent"
youngsters, leading them astray to the debauchery of the Jazz Age, and
thus giving birth to some of the best music that time (and the present,
for that matter) offers.
There is a--perhaps apocryphal--story that the young Bix Beiderbeck,
then of Davenport Iowa, heard these showboats and Marable's Orchestra
and the incredible tone of a then-unknown horn player who hit notes
higher and cleaner than Bix had imagined possible. The rest, as they
say, is all that jazz.
I think this is a marvelous aspect of Mississippi lore and hope you'll
consider using it. I've written a poem that captures--for me--what I've
described, and hope you'll consider using *that* too in the documentary
or perhaps in Exquisite Corpse. It would be a real honor (and uh way
cool) for me to be a part of either. Also, here are two wonderful resources
should you want to explore this idea:
1. From the Steamboatin Website, some delicious calliope sound samples
(whistle samples, too)
2. Capt. Clarke C. 'Doc' Hawley, perhaps the top riverboat historian
alive today, lives in your neck of the woods. He has worked on several
excursion boats, including the Streckfus' President. As a calliope player,
he is very knowledgeable about Fate Marable and I believe may have even
worked with him. Hawley now works with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company
and resides at: 639 Barracks New Orleans, LA 70116.
Please consider my poem. I'm holding my breath (and passing out soon).
Daylight fades and steam floats over the river,
the sun retreats, strikes its last orange notes
against the brown water flowing south
as shadows move forward denying the current
of convention moving in clumsy grace upriver
northward, slapping wet plashes on carved spokes,
the wheel leads like a masthead turning circles,
singing through eddies and clumps of reed.
Darkness falls and tons of iron chuff chug,
stoked by heat building in an angry cage
and burping up puffs through the stack
in cloud bursts that thin and curl over water,
weaving dank smoky threads through trees.
Darkness falls and gulls caw warnings,
leading faint frog choruses that will rise
in the night to insectile whirrs and the last
hungry splash of trout feeding, blending
against the heartbeat of the wheel the breath
of shifting water is held and released
in a thick whistle stretching across night air,
wheezing to silence paused until the first
giddy notes spill thin as reeds and giggle
the cooler air in silly calliope confections.
Waitin for the Robert E Lee! Dixie!
If You Knew Susie! Stars and Stripes Forever!
Laugh sultry in deep siren syncopation,
exploding horns and drumbeats into black.
The day is done and jazz struts dixie style
up the Mississippi. She rambles shoutin
Looka here! Calling past Fate's baton,
flying high as notes can leap from Louis'
horn and whizz over the wheel, over water,
past the riverbank, arrows of jazz shot
through the night sail through farmhouse
windows and into the hearts of young men
still sleeping in innocent beds, but filled
with lusty dreams of cities, sin, and song.