Ol’ Man River

Recently I purchased a book about Mark Twain written by a local author. For years I have enjoyed the collection of stories Mr. Twain has blessed us with, and his fascination with the Mississippi intrigues me.

Like Mr. Twain, I too have had the privilege of crossing the great river aboard a steamboat, though my adventure would be nothing compared to those of the famous Mark Twain. Nevertheless, I will never forget them.

A couple weeks ago, I found a delightful YouTube video called Ol’ Man River. It has been extremely influential in the creation of this post, and in my research on the Mississippi River. I highly recommend watching Ol’ Man River.

Ol’ Man River

“It was a big river…banks brimming full everywhere.” The Mississippi River, referred to as Father of Waters, is 2,320 miles long. Mile-wide waters branch into streams. Meandering tributaries resemble serpents slithering together across the sand on the flat of their bellies more than it does a body of water.  

Ol’ Man River flows slowly, drifting north to south, down the center of the continent. It borders and passes through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, and Mississippi –– from the headwaters of Minnesota to the Louisiana coast.

“It is not a common place river, but on the contrary, is in all ways remarkable considering the Missouri, its main branch, is the longest river in the world. 4,300 miles, it is also safe to say it is the crookedest river in the world since in one part of its journey it uses up 1,300 miles to cover the same ground the crow would fly over in 675. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred, thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.” *

Mark Twain

Not an easy river

Not an easy river to know, with its twist and turns, and constant changing course. “It was the river’s frequent wanderings that created the distinctive nature of Ol’ Man River. Endless bayous and swamps are possible to step away from the modern world and appreciate.”

The Blues

One great maze of timeless wonder, making its way to the sea, it bears a diverse culture—a  wellspring of music. In the South, Ol’ Man River birthed the Blues.

“Through the blues, Mississippians communicated support, hope, even joy – in field hollers, across crowded juke joints and rural barn dances, and across the wires to fans tuning in their favorite radio shows. Mississippi musicians looked to music for much of the joy in their lives. Maybe that is the real legacy of their music.”

Mississippi History Now

Becoming a commercial highway

But more than for its great wealth of music, the grand river is most famous for its era of steamboats. Taking on a world of commercialism, boats navigate the waters heaped with goods. Pilots must know the dangers of the river as troubled waters prove to be a deathtrap for flimsy vessels –– Wrecked steamboats scatter Ol’ Man River. 

Praised for its humble beginnings

Beyond the chaos and calamity of modern population, the Mississippi is most appreciated for its humble beginnings, intriguing beauty and immense body of wildlife.

“One cannot see too many summer sunrises on the Mississippi. They are enchanting. First, there is the eloquence of silence; for a deep hush broods everywhere. Next, there is the haunting sense of loneliness, isolation, remoteness from the worry and bustle of the world. The dawn creeps in stealthily, the solid walls of black forest soften gray, and vast stretches of the river open up and reveal themselves; the water is glass-smooth, gives off spectral little wreaths of white mist, there is not the faintest breath of wind, nor stir of leaf; the tranquility is profound and infinitely satisfying.”

Mark Twain

Imagine, floating on a raft made of logs, drifting calmly down the river…

A gentle breath of fog rises off the tranquil surface waters and forms a ghostly veil of haze. Early morning light bleeds through sagging branches and ancient trees. Somewhere in the quiet, birds trill. Frogs croak. A turtle falls off his log into the river and makes a noisy splash. Crickets chirp. An alligator gracefully patrols the murky water. On the outer banks a white-top, curly haired figure, hunches over ink and paper penning his thoughts. In that moment, characters such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are birthed into existence, as another wondrous tale and exciting adventure comes to life on Ol’ Man River.

• • •

All quotes are from Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi (also available as an audio book here), except for the quote about the musical legacy of Mississippians, which is taken from Mississippi History Now.

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*Some of these facts given to us by Mr. Twain are slightly exaggerated. For example, the Mississippi is not the longest river in the world. In fact, it is the 4th longest river in the world.

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