Old Man River, dat Old Man River,
He must know sumpin’ but he don’t say nuthin’,
He jus’ keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along.
–“Old Man River” from Showboat by
Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern
(To see videos of this song, click here and here.)
In May 1994, I made a sentimental journey down home to the Mississippi River Delta of Southeast Arkansas to mark the fortieth anniversary of my father’s death on May 25, 1954.
While there I visited with my former long-time pastor, then retired and now deceased, who had performed my marriage more than thirty-one years earlier.
Afterward I traveled the eleven miles from my hometown of McGehee to the riverport town of Arkansas City in a vain attempt to meet and reminisce with Cullen Gannaway, my best friend from those days and my best man in that wedding.
Since Cullen was not home, I decided to take advantage of the situation and do a bit of “soul-stirring.” Turning my car up onto the levee, I followed the curving graveled road along its top for several miles north until I came to an isolated spot on the “Big Muddy.”
Once there I descended on foot to the edge of the flood-swollen torrent where I ceremoniously dipped my right foot in the dingy water in a customary ritual, renewing a time-honored vow that one day I would return to my beloved homeland. (To listen to Jimmie Rodgers sing “The Mississippi Delta Blues,” click here.)
As I stood there in reverie, watching a riverboat plow upstream against the powerful current, two seemingly inconsequential events took place.
First, a U.S. Corps of Engineers boat heaved into sight and landed right at my feet. From it a young man emerged and began to make his way toward a waiting truck. When I casually asked him what he and his colleagues were up to, his laconic reply was “Oh, just doin’ a little surveyin’” to which I thought “So am I.”
After the rivercraft had reversed course and headed back downstream. I sat down to continue my introspective vigil and to soak in the familiar sights and sounds when suddenly my eye caught a lone crayfish desperately making his way back toward the water.
Recalling that this was the same spot where in our youth my future wife and I, along with Cullen and his future wife, had once caught nearly a five-gallon bucket full of “crawdads,” I reached down and picked up the poor creature thinking it would make a nice “souvenir” to remind Mari of those simpler, happier days. (To see a musical video “You Are the River” made at this very spot, click here.)
The courageous crustacean had other ideas, however, and proceeded to pinch the blood out of my hand.
As I gingerly grasped him between thumb and forefinger, I realized the God-like power I held over him. I could crush him or take him away forever as we had done with his ancestors, never to see his home again, or I could release him back into the cafe-au-lait-colored waters where he belonged—which I did with a glance heavenward as if to say, “Do You get the message, Lord?”
Though surely the Lord “must know sumpin’,” as is so often the case in my experience He elected to “say nuthin’.”
So after a time I reluctantly turned my back on Old Man River, climbed up the bank and up the levee and up out of the Delta and headed back toward the plains of Oklahoma where for a while yet I must resign myself to “jus’ keep on rollin’ along.”
Quotes about the Mississippi River
“Muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try!”
“I once baptized our little Okie dog Jose in the Mississippi [Jordan] River to make him an ‘Arkie of the Covenant.'”
“Even the rainwater that falls on Tulsa is drawn to run down to Southeast Arkansas to return to the Father (of Waters). Why should my heartfelt desire to do the same come as any kind of surprise?”
“All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was [i.e., back HOME].”
—Toni Morrison, Today’s Cryptoquote, Tulsa World, 12-07-09
“‘The water is very high in Mc GEE HEE [pronounced MaGEE], in DESH ‘a [pronounced DeSHAY] County in Ar KAN’ sas [pronounced ArkanSAW].’”
—Mrs. Marion Stroud, quoting 1927 radio announcer
speaking of historic Mississippi River flood
“When T.S. Eliot christened the Mississippi River the ‘great brown god,’ he was tipping his pen not only to the river but also to the people whose lives and fortunes were bound inseparably to it; a river-centered culture to which Arkansas was and remains, no stranger. From the brown Mississippi to the delta land it suckles . . . rivers have been veins of commerce throughout the state’s history, converging inextricably with the lives of [its] residents.”
—Tim Stanley, “The waters of life: Arkansas celebrates its river heritage with a full month of cultural events,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 3, 1998
“I’m not old enough to remember the Kate Adams, the steamboat that connected Memphis, Helena, Friar’s Point [MS] and Arkansas City, but I remember the Sprague, the world’s most powerful sternwheeler . . . . Interesting that the history of our rivers is still being written, yet Americans know so little about it at any age.”
—Richard Allin, “Rollin’ on the river,” Our Town column,
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd
(To view a video with the Kate Adams and other Mississippi riverboats set to Arkansas Delta Blues music, click here.)
“Weeping, we sat beside the rivers of Babylon [Oklahoma] thinking of Jerusalem [the Delta]. We have put away our lyres, hanging them upon the branches of the willow trees, for how can we sing? Yet our captors, our tormentors, demand that we sing for them the happy songs of Zion [home]! If I forget you, O Jerusalem [Mighty Mississippi], let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp [the computer keyboard]. If I fail to love her more than my highest joy, let me never sing [write] again.”
—Psalm 137:1-6 The Living Bible (paraphrased)