Lower Mississippi River Dispatch
No 247, Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Foreword: Used 4WD Suburban Needed! If anyone has an old suburban sitting around unused and un-needed, please contact me! Quapaw Canoe Canoe is in need of a 3/4ton 2500 Suburban 4WD (or something equivalent). Interior condition not important but must be in good shape otherwise. Interested in purchase. Respond to this email! Thank you. Many blessings, and May the River be with You.
The Mighty Quapaw documentary film by Joey Dickinson for FSU and the Live Oak Production Group can be seen on the QCC home page http://www.island63.com or on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGH8qS9kzFQ.
Joey Dickinson finding the earth rhythm (on Emma's pink sabre tooth drum made by Annette-Waya)
I don’t know what it is about Florida youth. Many of you will fondly remember Tommy Owens, native of Everglades City, who spent several years as a Mighty Quapaw in the first decade of the new millennium. Tommy bubbled over with endless enthusiasm and good spirit during his apprenticeship, infecting everybody around him, and leading to many good adventures and projects during his tenure. In similar good spirit and enthusiasm, Joey Dickinson and Nic Stoltzfus spent a week with us in March. Both Floridians by birth and now choice in their adulthood, Joey and Nic are two fine young men full of charisma, character, good energy, curiosity, graciousness, and overflowing with talent. In a funny twist of fate, just last week their fathers stood together on the stage of the Florida Wildlife Federation Annual Awards Banquet, both winning leading awards for good work done in Florida's natural world. Their fathers know each other. Their sons know about each other. But until last week neither knew that they both had deep connections with Quapaw Canoe Company. This is the power of the river, connecting people far and near. The apple never falls far from the tree, right? If Joey and Nic and Tommy are examples of the next generation, then I am feeling good about where the world is headed. Then again, maybe it's just something about Florida? I don’t know. I’m going to let Nic tell their story in his flowing eloquence, with some great descriptions of life in the Mississippi Delta, and you decide.
BTW: Joey and Nic's incredible work can be seen in The Mighty Quapaw documentary film made for FSU and the Live Oak Production Group on the QCC home page http://www.island63.com or on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGH8qS9kzFQ. This is the most complete story yet told of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program: who we are, where we come from, and why we keep doing it!
Nic Stoltzfus finding the best angle from the river water in the Helena Harbor
Sunday March 9th, 2014
By Nic Stoltzfus
The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part I: Getting There
The fall of 2013 Joey Dickinson (current editor at Live Oak Production Group) was trying to decide what to do for a final video project at Florida State University to finish out his degree in Media Production. It had to be completed the following spring, but he needed a topic sooner. He had a couple of ideas, but none of them stuck. He knew he wanted to make a short documentary featuring a star environmentalist, but he hadn’t found the right person yet. The semester came and went: nothing. His plan was to pick a topic over winter break and go with it.
At the end of the fall semester, Joey and I were part of a 9 man crew that paddled the length of the Apalachicola River. Members of the crew included two “river-rats” from Clarksdale, Mississippi: John Ruskey and Mark “River” Peoples. With them they brought their most recent handmade canoe, the Grasshopper, for her maiden voyage. Over the course of the nine days that we spent with them they fed us a steady stream of stories of life in Clarksdale and all the programs they provide at the Quapaw Canoe Company. They talked about how they take people down the Mississippi River on tours, and work with the local students to teach them canoe building skills, and about how they partner with local businesses to bring commerce to the Delta region. I was shocked. People still paddle down the Mississippi? I thought it was dirty! Polluted! Who wants to do that? All of us leaned in closer as River and John continued to tell stories about back home. As we parted ways at the end of our journey, Joey asked John Ruskey if he could make a documentary on the Quapaw Canoe Company. He agreed and the two started planning a time when Joey could come out to Mississippi. After e-mailing back and forth John Ruskey and Joey settled on a date, which was Joey’s spring break, so Joey and I planned to go out March 9th-15th. The plan was that Joey and I would go to Clarksdale and shoot all the principal video for a 15-20 minute documentary featuring John Ruskey and the Quapaw Canoe Company. Dr. Andy Opel from the FSU College of Communication and Information’s Media Production Program would be Joey’s supervising professor on the project. Joey planned to use equipment from FSU’s Media Production Program and Live Oak Production Group (my dad’s production company). At the time Joey was still an intern at Live Oak Production Group. When Joey told my dad (Elam Stoltzfus) that he wanted to go to Clarksdale and film a documentary about Quapaw for his senior thesis project he thought it was a great idea, and he wanted to do all he could to support him. Something similar happened to my dad his senior year at FSU: He was an intern at Everything Video in Tallahassee and the director, Glenn Sharon, let him use the company’s equipment so he could work on his final video project. So, Dad saw this as a way of giving back.
With all the pieces set, Joey decided we would leave on Sunday from Blountstown, Florida bound for Clarksdale, Mississippi. Let the wheels and good times roll!
Before Joey and I started out driving Sunday morning we had a big breakfast with my family and my Aunt Lois. She came down from Illinois to escape some of the cold weather and spend time with family in Florida. Sunday morning Mom made biscuits and gravy—a family favorite. She used handmade sausage from our neighbors, the Dueitts, for the gravy. Mike and Rhonda Dueitt are originally from Mississippi, and I felt like it was a fitting way to begin our journey to the Delta. After packing and doing one last equipment check, Joey and I said goodbye to everyone and drove off in Dad’s Sequoia. We decided to take the shortest route to Mississippi that iPhone’s Siri gave us—north through Alabama followed by a turn west at Birmingham to Clarksdale. It was a cloud-free March day with a faint breath of winter hanging in the air. Joey and I both love music, so we plugged in his iPod to the car’s tape-deck and cruised on to Mississippi; we two explorers flowing further north and deeper South, sliding down on the mellifluous music of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. We stopped at Montgomery at a local sports bar called Baumhowser’s and ordered fried Wickles as an appetizer. Wickles are an Alabama homegrown favorite—sweet and slightly spicy pickles. The waitress brought them to our table fried honey-brown with a side of cool ranch sauce to dip them in. After lunch we continued driving north through Alabama as the sun arced westward through the sky. At Birmingham we turned west and followed the setting sun towards our destination. A lovely sunset greeted us at the Alabama-Mississippi border and we entered the Delta with nightfall on our wheels. We gassed up our rig in Oxford, home of Sam Merideth and Ole Miss. On the hour long stretch from Oxford to Clarksdale we listened to Robert Johnson, the legendary Delta bluesman. Around 9 pm we arrived in Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues. As we pulled into the Quapaw Canoe Company HQ in downtown Clarksdale, Mark “River” Peoples was there to greet us. He greeted us with a giant smile and shiny eyes, brimming with joy at reuniting with two of his comrades from the Apalachicola River expedition. He gave us big hugs and welcomed us into the Quapaw Canoe Company’s office to meet Braxton. The two of them live onsite, so there is always someone at the Clarksdale office 24/7. Braxton Barden has been working for Quapaw for a few months; he is a retired Navy officer who was stationed in Japan close to Yokohama for over a decade and has traveled all around the world. We chatted with the two of them for awhile and they told us the plan for tomorrow: we would meet at 6 and head over to Helena, Arkansas (one of Quapaw’s three outposts is located in Helena). We would put in here and paddle upstream with a crew from Teach for America. After we came back the plan was to head to “Bluesberry Café” and listen to some Delta blues. My eyes widened and I realized that we had a full day ahead of us; I wanted to go to bed soon so I would be well rested for tomorrow.
The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part II: On the River and Monday Night Blues
Monday, March 10th, 2014: Today Joey and I paddled up the Mississippi River. Many people travel down the Mississippi, but not too many folks paddle upriver. Something that made this even more unique was that we were going with the folks from the Quapaw Canoe Company. The name of their company is derived from the Quapaw people that originally inhabited this region. Quapaw comes from the Siouan word okáxpa and means “the people downstream.” Normally John Ruskey makes most of his trips going with the current, so today would be a rare trip against the flow of the river. We were paddling with a crew of Teach for America teachers from Memphis, Tennessee, who were also on spring vacation. Their regional coordinator contacted John and asked if he could put together a paddle focusing on teambuilding. I woke up at 5:15, cleaned up, and headed outside. The morning light was just starting to fill the sky, and the silhouettes of the buildings were beginning to lighten with color.
Joey joined me outside, and we headed downstairs to the main Quapaw Office for the morning meeting. John greeted us with his typical unhurried smile and asked how our drive here went. We said it went well and added that we were excited to paddle the great Mississippi.
That morning we met River, Braxton, John, and the rest of the crew who would be traveling with us to Helena: Markevius “Dinky” Jones and Michael “Lil Mike” Wortham, two graduates of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program from Helena, Arkansas; Ellis Johnson, truck driver and ground support; and Valencia Metcall, recent inductee of the Clarksdale Mighty Quapaw program. After Joey and I introduced ourselves and explained our reason for coming to Clarksdale, I zipped on a pair of mud-boots and chugged down a cup of coffee and piled into “Bessie”, a beat-up red Chevy, along with Joey and Valencia. The rest of the crew piled into the other truck. Both vehicles had a trailer attached to the back and had a canoe strapped down on it. Ellis drove out first in the black SUV and Braxton brought up their rear in Bessie. From Clarksdale it is a 30-minute trek to Helena.
We crossed the Mississippi River, the dividing line between Mississippi and Arkansas, and I looked out over the bridge at the waters below. I thought of my home river, the Apalachicola, and how she is dwarfed by the monstrous Mississippi. The muddy waters flowed fast and I could see many docks stretched out below the bridge. The Mississippi is an industrious river capable of handling large amounts of traffic. My eyes opened a little wider at the site of all the large barges heading upstream. The 30-foot canoes we had towing behind us were mere toothpicks compared to these giants!
We arrived at the Quapaw Canoe Company’s Helena Outpost and were greeted by the folks who worked primarily from this end. John “Mad Dog” Fewkes is the manager and lead facilitator of the Helena Mighty Quapaw program. Along with Dinky, Lil Mike, and Valencia, there were two Mighty Quapaw graduates from Helena who would be joining us as river guides: Roy Williams and Oscar—he simply went by OJ. Both are currently mentors for the Helena Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program.
Here I would like to make a quick diversion and briefly explain to you the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program. In sum it is an after-school apprenticeship program run by the Quapaw Canoe Company and is largely grant-funded. The first program began The Helena program also works closely with KIPP, a charter school network in Arkansas. The skills they teach range from canoe crafting to river guiding to paddle construction. I’ll explain more about the Mighty Quapaws in greater detail later on, but for now use this as a basic definition.
The crew from Teach for America arrived and John did a basic orientation of how the day would go and explained that we would paddle upstream in six of Quapaw’s handcrafted wood canoes to a nearby island for lunch and take a break on the island to let the teachers work on teambuilding, and we would all head back in the afternoon.
Here what I should do is go into detail about paddling up the Mississippi and what it was like. I should go into gritty detail about the experience, but I am going to hold off and say this: go out and do it. I will leave it at that.
After being out on the river all day filming and paddling, Joey and I were exhausted, so we went back to the Owl’s Roost, cleaned up, and took a nap. After our brief siesta, Braxton came by to pick us up so we could walk over to the Bluesberry Café together for spaghetti and blues. Upon our arrival, we met up with River and he ushered us into a back table he picked out. We ordered the one item on the menu, spaghetti, and our food came out just as the first bluesman of the evening took the stage: Sean “Bad” Apple.
Bluesberry Café is a one of a kind dive bar smack-dab in the middle of downtown Clarksdale. Lining the walls of this small blues joint are gig posters from Delta blues players, such as Clarksdale-based “Super Chikan” (Real name: James Johnson. He is the brother of Quapaw’s own Ellis Johnson and nephew of the bluesman Big Jack Johnson).
I continued looking around the room and the best word I can use to describe the atmosphere and the people is eclectic; random. Sean Apple wore the kind of beard that I imagined fur trappers and Louisiana backwoods folk wore—you know, the Duck Dynasty style beard. On his head was a large fedora and his eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. His shirt was sparkling silver, his slacks were black, and his shoes were spit-shined wing-tips. As he fingered his guitar with a glass slide on his finger, his shoulders shrugged up and down to the rhythm and his beard all but hid the mike from view. Some guy named “Ice Man” was in the back playing a drum kit; he wore an oversize football jersey and a flat-tip baseball cap. Another guy called “Bones” played a washboard he had strung around his neck. His washboard had a metallic necktie down the front, and Sean quipped that he was the best-dressed guy in the house. Joey said that if Jerry Garcia had lived to his 60s, he would look like Bones. I thought he looked like an older, hairer, burned-out version of Anthony Hopkins; set in his weathered face were a pair of sharp eyes worn-down by seeing too much of the world.
The bluesmen and the audience were all actors in a grand theatrical play; this larger-than-life motley crew, cartoonish in appearance and action. The sole waitress had the air of a New Jersey-ite who had come to Clarksdale, fell in love with the blues, and stayed. She would have fit right at home in an Italian neon-lit club: shoulder-length pink hair with an inch or so at the roots dark brown, the natural color taking back over; black eyebrows boldly standing out against her pale face, heavily painted with bold make-up; Marilyn piercing stamped off-right of her upper lip; crimson lipstick making her full lips fuller. She looked at me with dark eyes and twisted her lips in a smile as she sauntered in with my plate of spaghetti.
Across the room sat an Australian couple who I guessed lived in Clarksdale part- or full-time because Sean Apple gave them a knowing wave and nod. I pointed them out to River and he mumbled something about them catching the blues on a vacation from Australia. If River hadn’t told me they were Aussies I would have guessed them to be French. They were dressed the way I imagined French people dress: He wore a forest green beret, rimless glasses, and had a thin goatee striped on his chin. She had a scarf wrapped around her neck and wore a black wool overcoat. On the table was a large bottle of red wine that they slowly emptied over the course of the evening.
Sean, Iceman, and Bones continued playing and, after a few songs, Sean invited a local bluesman, “Razorblade” (Real name: Josh Stewart) to come up and sing. An older man dressed in a suit hobbled in from stage left assisted by a wooden cane, and I wondered if he was still fit to sing. The moment he started singing all doubt was blown away—this guy still had it. Uh-huh. As we continued to listen to him we finished our spaghetti and laid back in our seats with full bellies and souls.
Razorblade left after singing a few songs and the trio started playing again. A guy on the bongos at stage left joined in. Sean beckoned for another guy to come up and he introduced himself as “Watermelon Slim” (Real name: Bill Homans). I was surprised Sean invited this guy up because this was the fellow that, just half an hour earlier, was meandering through the audience gruffly spouting offbeat and slightly crazy comments towards no one in particular; I wondered to myself if he was a homeless man who had found his way into Bluesberry. He was as old and crusty as Razorblade and the lines around his face were indicative of a hard life. He stood up there in front of us, silent for a few beats, and started thumping his shoes on the floor. He swayed back and forth as he pulled two silver harmonicas out of his pocket. He started playing the harmonica. He continued to rock back and forth and then began writhing and weltering in front of us. The harmonica howled out a series of successive doleful cries. My jaw dropped and I looked over at Joey; he was already looking at me, mouth agape. Who was this? How can someone spirit so much out of such a small instrument? It was as if a part of heaven had ripped open and the light from yonder shone a spotlight this harmonica playing fiend wrenching his soul out in front of us. Watermelon Slim continued playing and began walking around the bar and leaned in close to people and looked them in the eyes; one man and his music reaching out and squeezing people’s souls. As he approached our table Joey pulled out his camera and prepared to take a picture of him. Watermelon was singing about looking through a keyhole, and, as he sang those lyrics, he pulled a bit for a socket wrench out of his pocket and put it over his right eye and twisted it from side to side. There was a rawness, a realness as a played. When he sang, “I believe God’s lookin’ down sideways at me,” I felt the pain of what he lived through.
Joey cried. It was just that good. Good music has this ability, this capability, to wash over you, wash through you, and change you. The music, born of the ground and earth and river, slid into the depths of my soul and took root.
Watermelon Slim finished his solo and the quartet started back up again, this time with an upbeat song. Sean beckoned people to center stage—dance! A gaggle of folks got up and some of the ladies found salad tongs and clapped them together over their heads as they danced. The clacks of the tongs, the thumps of the bongos, the twangs of the guitar, the strikes of the drum melded into one unified incantation waking this slumbering town from sleep; a burg ensorcelled, bewitched by the blues.
We stayed for one last song and after Joey, River, and I made our way back to the Owl’s Roost, tired and happy. As we walked home, we could hear the muffled sounds of Bluesberry Café out on the deserted streets. Tomorrow was going to be another long day on the river filming a clean-up with an Alternative Break Corps from Mississippi State University, and I wanted to be well-rested and alert. I said goodnight to Joey and went to my room. I closed my eyes and the hushed tones of the Monday Night Blues lulled me to sleep.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold —
That is the madman;
The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
–William Shakespeare, A Midsummer’s Night Dream (The speaker is Theseus in Act V, Scene I)
The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part III: Getting Used to River-Time
Tuesday, March 11th : I woke up this morning and Joey and I prepped to go back on the river again today—except today we started at 7, an hour later than yesterday. That extra hour of sleep was mighty nice! The Clarksdale crew (John, River, Braxton, Ellis, Lil Mike, Dinky, Valencia) assembled all the gear and we drove to Helena for another upriver paddle, this time with a group of students from Mississippi State University participating in the Mississippi Delta Alternative Break program. During their spring break these students traveled all over Mississippi Delta region doing volunteer work. Their plan for today was to clean up trash on Buck Island. We paddled up to the island and most of the students dispersed upon landing to begin picking up trash. A few stayed behind to help make lunch.
During this time, Joey and I filmed separately for a bit—he was doing timelapses, and I was shooting b-roll. Afterwards we came back together to conduct interviews. When we did interviews with the Mighty Quapaws it was evident that this was more than just an apprenticeship program by what they had to say to us.
“I have an older cousin, and he was actually working with John before me so he would come out and tell me about the trips and stuff like that and I came down one day and from that day on I been here ever since. And then they put me in a boat; I wasn’t scared the first time they put me out—I enjoyed it...”
“I can say meeting John changed my life, because, like I said, he taught to me a lot of stuff that I didn’t know…John is a good guy and giving guy, a caring guy; I guess I see him as a father figure, a good father figure.”
–Markevius “Dinky” Jones
“I was surfing the web, I came across it on the web, and I had a friend in it and I didn’t even realize, you know Dinky, yeah he kinda introduced me and got me in with the whole situation...
“John Ruskey, he’s amazing, he’s an amazing nature guy, the River King…the Mississippi River King, John Ruskey.
–Michael “Lil Mike” Wortham
(On Mark River) “He cool, he funny, and good at giving me advice when I’m canoeing...
I’ve learned patience, and how to canoe and how to paddle and like…Do it right…”
Soon, lunch was ready. The cook crew smoked ribs in a cast-iron kettle placed over a woodfire that Braxton had prepared; boiled hominy with rosemary in a separate cast-iron cauldron, and cooked sweet potatoes and sweet onions in a final covered pot. Needless to say, lunch was divine.
I spent lunch sitting on the banks of Buck Island talking with Nick Timmerman, a Phd Candidate from MSU whose thesis is on race relations in the Mississippi Delta. We didn’t get a chance to chat for long, but he recommended that I read James C. Cobb’s “The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity” for a more detailed look at race relations in the state. The folks at Quapaw also recommended this book to us, and River gave Joey the book upon arrival in Clarksdale. I read through the book when I got back, and it really does a good job of giving a great overview of the Delta region and how it came to be the way it is today. I also highly recommend any Delta blues enthusiast to buy the book if only to read the chapter detailing the birth of the Delta blues (“The Blues is a Lowdown Shakin’ Chill”).
After lunch we headed back to the Helena Outpost, cleaned up, chilled a bit, and Joey and I reheated some lunch leftovers for supper. After supper Joey, Mark, and Braxton headed to Hambone Art Gallery for some more blues, but I stayed in to catch up on some much-needed sleep.
The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part IV: Deeper Thoughts on a Deep River
Wednesday, March 12th: Today was exceptionally windy; there were up to 45 mile an hour winds whipping up over the Mississippi—and that is too dangerous for small vessels like the Quapaw canoes to go out on the water. So, the canoeing trip for today was canceled. Instead, Braxton and River decided to show us around the levees. But first—breakfast.
This morning we ate at River’s favorite grease spoon in Clarksdale: the Delta Amusement Café . When I say grease spoon what I really mean is grease bowl—toast smeared with butter, butter-anointed grits, a greasy sausage patty, three oil-slicks of bacon, and some slippery butter-swabbed scrambled eggs. All this topped off with some gas-station strong coffee. Perfect way to start the morning. All aboard the Heart Attack Express! Here comes four more strapping young men!
After breakfast our hearty quartet drove up to a place called Moon River—an old oxbow of the Mississippi River. River told us that, when the river gets high, these usually unconnected oxbows open up and the fish go in them and lay their eggs. The freshly-hatched fish hang out in these oxbow lakes for a year or two as they mature and, when the river spills back into them again, they leave and head downstream.
After our jaunt to Moon River we started driving back towards Montezuma Landing. As Braxton drove us around in his station wagon my mind wandered. People think “river” and they think of only a singular main channel. But, my oh my, it is more than that. This river has, for centuries, spilt over her banks during flood season. These floods deposit nutrients into the delta and enrich the soil with nutrients. This cycle of nature is dangerous and has displaced people in the past. One of the largest natural disaster the United States has ever witnessed was the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Mississippi spilled over her banks and displaced almost a million people. It is considered one of the worst floods (if not the worst) along the Mississippi and one of America’s greatest natural disasters. This is one of the factors in the Great Migration of African-Americans from this region to places up north like Chicago, New York, Detroit. And with them they took their culture. The blues was packed up in a suitcase and clickety-clacked northbound on rails and automobiles to find a new home. For more info on this history, Ruskey recommended reading Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America by John M. Barry. In a later conversation Mad Dog recommended the same book to Joey; he said that it really explains the centrality of the river to the region.
Map of the changing course of the Lower Mississippi River over time. I found this image attached to an excellent article about the river over at the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/
After the flood, in the southern portion of the river the Army Corps of Engineers erected more levees along the sides of the main channel as means of preventing it from spilling over into the rich farmland and small towns scattered along the river valley. Nature chaotic became nature controlled. But there was a consequence: the nutrients from the river no longer spilled out into the farmlands and so the once nutrient-rich soil became depleted over time. Countless capillaries of the main artery shriveled into dried blood; Man’s mangled open-heart surgery of Nature. And what of the folks who witnessed this tragedy play itself out?
At some level…they lost their souls. Perhaps it is more than just the individual oppression, the breakdown of race relations. Perhaps the collective crying out over the dissecting of the river—their homeland, their body—is what formed the blues. It is not happy music, the Delta blues. Something has died in this land, and it hasn’t returned. It never will return. No one should really “whoop it up” or “have a whale of a time” as they listen to the blues—it is not that kind of music. You can dig it, appreciate it, even enjoy it. But, most of all, you must empathize with what is being sung, what is being played. You can’t play the blues unless you have dealt with heartache, dealt with sadness. And the people in this region have seen their fair share.
I look at shacks found by the edge of the road: dilapidated, derelict, decrepit; run-down, rickety, stuck in time. Memories pervade the air in the area, intermingle with the searing humidity. It was once a bustling place, but it lost something. The river is no longer as important of a travel route as it once was. Somewhere along the way, people stopped using rivers as ways to get around. Rivers are natural highways, now we see the world mostly from manmade highways. Canoes and steamboats faded from the American consciousness and now highways and roads are our means of uniting the states. We cut through the country by car, not by boat, and certainly not by canoe.
However, even in the midst of the poverty, lawlessness, and barrenness of the land, culture formed in the Delta. People found ways to express what happened around them with the blues and other art forms.
There is something about the Delta people that goes to the very heart of what it means to be human. Perhaps nowhere else in America do such extremes in ways of life and emotional history exist so intimately.
This is what Dr. Barry H. Smith, current director of the Dreyfus Health Foundation, wrote in the preface to Magdalena Solé’s art book, New Delta Rising, featuring pictures and stories of the Delta region. Dr. Smith is right: in the midst of depravity the essence of humanity still endures. The heart of this land may be broken, but briny lifeblood of the Mississip’ continues to flow.
We continued to drive around. We listened to the local blues radio station and cycled through the iPod. Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train A-Comin’” and “Electric Church Red House.” Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.” Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Snow.” The past, the present, and the future all fold on one another, flat. Flat like the Delta valley.
We went to Montezuma Landing (aka Delta Landing) and checked out the nearby docks. There was a barge headed to some upstream port with a sole towboat pushing it upriver and the wind was so strong that it was pushing it back. The tug was chugging as hard as it could with a sizable wake behind it, but it wasn’t moving anywhere fast. Another towboat started up and crossed over to help the struggling tug. Joey filmed a timelapse of this as I took stills around the area.
After watching this scene for about half an hour the four of us started to get hungry, so we went to Friar’s Point, the next town north of Clarksdale, and stopped at the local Chinese grocer and ordered fried chicken gizzards. Braxton ordered fried rice. The menu in the back was disorienting: fried gizzards and fried chicken next to General Tso’s chicken and sesame chicken. Strange.
The cook brought the gizzards out in white styrofoam containers. I popped one into my mouth—it had a nice buttery flavor, but it was too chewy. Joey thought that they tasted like fried boots. It was a “bit too southern” for my tastes, as Braxton put it. Joey and I couldn’t finish ours, so we gave our leftovers to River, who happily accepted them. While in the store, I heard the lady up front yelling to the lady in the back in Chinese. A local came in and muttered to the lady in front in southern black slang, “Hey, y’all got sweet tea? My friend wantsome.”
That evening we got back and went to Yazoo Pass in Clarksdale for supper. Joey and I couldn’t decide on one item because they all looked so good, so we split a burger and a shrimp po’ boy and each got a bag of Jalapeno Voodoo chips to go alongside. We brought our food back to the Owl’s Roost and sat around and told stories and listened to CDs that Joey had gotten of Watermelon Slim and Razorblade (he picked up Razorblade’s CD from the man himself and bought a Watermelon Slim album at the local record store—Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art, Inc.). A relaxing way to end the day.
The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part V: John Ruskey
Thursday, March 13th: Today Joey and I woke up and prepared all of our gear and walked down to the main office to set up and interview Mark “River” Peoples. After this we headed over to interview Hannah Tippitt, a Clarksdale local, and Megan O’Connor, an elementary school Spanish teacher in Clarksdale. After the interviews, River, Joey, and I met up with Braxton and had lunch at Dutch Oven, a local Mennonite-run restaurant. In the afternoon we had a little bit of downtime, so I wrote for awhile and Joey did some more filming around town. That evening River came back over and we went to Ground Zero Blues Club (the one that Morgan Freeman founded) for open mic night.
Friday, March 14th: Today was our last full day in Clarksdale—my, the week went fast! Joey and I set up the camera gear down in the main office to interview John Ruskey. In a role reversal, I ran the camera and Joey asked the questions. Joey had two pages of specific questions and really wanted to make sure he asked all the questions as succinctly as possible. Our interview with John was the longest of the week, about an hour long; John really dug in deep and shared with us stories of his life.
John Ruskey has a colorful history, and I won’t go into all the details here because I want to focus on his role as a mentor and how the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was birthed (if you want a brief history of Ruskey I recommend you check out Gregg Patterson’s 2009 article featured in Arkansas Farm Bureau’s Front Porch magazine).
In his interview, John Ruskey told us that he was inspired to mentor the youth from his blues teacher and mentor Johnnie “Mr. Johnnie” Billington.
“He [Johnnie Billington] is as important as anything towards the creation of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program… He showed me how you can take something that we are sharing, like the blues or canoe building, and break it down into the simple skills that are involved along the way, and teach the very basics from keeping the beat, to tapping your hand on the snare, to all these different steps on the long road to becoming a successful performer on stage. But, he showed me how you can do that by breaking it down to these very discreet, learnable steps. And he was really inspirational for me and how to do that with the young men and women who used to show up on my doorstep wanting to learn to carve a canoe. Because I just use Mr. Johnnie’s method, I taught them with the very basics from the beginning, and taught them how to learn how to build a canoe with very, very simple steps…that came directly from my experience with him when I was learning to play the blues.”
But, you may wonder—how did an accomplished bluesman come to be a river-guide along the Mississippi? The way Ruskey tells it, living in Clarksdale, he recognized that people who came to the city for the blues were also interested in the river—and some even wanted to go out on the river and explore it. Since he had experience paddling the river, he decided to start a canoe company to take people out on the Mississippi.
The Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was birthed almost simultaneously. One morning John was outside hulling out a dugout canoe, and, because it is concave and made of wood, it made a dull thumping sound—thump, thump—that could be heard all throughout the neighborhood. So, curious neighborhood kids would come out and watch him. “Who is this guy? Who is this strange guy? Why is a building a canoe? Is he crazy?” Those were the sorts of questions that would be whispered amongst the kids. Finally, the kids dared each other and got the bravest of the bunch to ask him what he was doing. John would patiently explain that he was carving out a dugout canoe to sail on the Mississippi river. The brave kid would run back to the group and they would spend the next few days back to the status quo—just watching and whispering amongst each other. A few days later, the group would dare another brave kid to go up to John. “Hey, Mr. Ruskey—can I try out one of your tools?” And John would reach over for an extra pair of gloves and safety glasses and teach this kid how to carve out a canoe. And that is how the Mighty Quapaws were born. So, really, you can’t have the Quapaw Canoe Company without the Mighty Quapaws.
Joey and I finished up our interview with Ruskey, and I was emotionally drained. We had covered so much information and my head was spinning. It is amazing how much this man has done! How does he do it? (After Joey came back and transcribed all the interviews he came up with 33 pages; 21 of those were from John Ruskey.)
Joey and I packed up our gear and then headed to downtown Clarksdale to film more around town. We worked through the afternoon and then came back to the Quapaw HQ to clean up. Joey then helped River to sand down one of the canoes, and I filmed them working. Around 5:30 we called it a day and walked across Sunflower Avenue to Dreamboat Jerry’s for barbecue and tamales. We picked them up and came back to the Owl’s Roost to eat. After dinner River, Joey, and I went back to Ground Zero. On line-up for tonight were a series of local artists playing for a benefit concert: “Wearing the Green and Singing the Blues;” Since the early 2000s, Ground Zero has hosted this yearly benefit concert to raise money for the Jonestown Family Center. We listened to some blues, and left around 10. Joey and I went to sleep early so we would be well-rested for the drive back to Florida the next day.
Saturday, March 15th: This morning Joey got up around 6 to film John’s morning routine; John normally wakes up around 4 or 5, but showed mercy on Joey and started a little later. River and I walked over to Ruskey’s house and met up with him, his wife (Sarah), and his daughter (Emma Lou) around 7 for breakfast. Braxton and his girlfriend also joined us.
John was preparing breakfast, and I went to the kitchen to hang out with him. He was by the stove stirring up sausages and flipping pancakes. But these weren’t any ordinary pancakes—they were “bunny pancakes.” Here is how to make bunny pancakes: start with a pancake in the shape of a rabbit head, and then take a long sausage and cut it lengthwise and lay it down on the ears, use two almonds for eyes, and use pineapple wedges for whiskers. Voila! Bunny pancakes!
John’s daughter, Emma Lou, is a young girl with expressive and curious blue eyes, like her dad, and is fascinated by all kinds of plants and animals. She loves dogs and cats, but, above all else, she loves bunnies. And bunny pancakes are Emma Lou’s favorite pancakes. It was in that moment, standing in the kitchen with John, that things became clear for me. John Ruskey is more than the “Chief Visionary Officer” for the Quapaw Canoe Company. Yes, there is John Ruskey, accomplished bluesman. John Ruskey, river-guide. John Ruskey, environmentalist. John Ruskey, communitarian. But I think the thing that keeps John going day after day is John Ruskey, husband. John Ruskey, dad. It is not easy being a small business owner/artist and also being a family man.
As the son of a small business owner/artist, I recognize these struggles. My dad missed some of my school events because he was filming on-location and family vacations frequently consisted of part-work, part-play. Sometimes I felt like I was competing with his art for attention and affection. No, my dad isn’t perfect and he has messed up, but I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if he hadn’t believed in me and offered me a job as a writer with Live Oak Production Group. Our family has had its share of ups and downs, but (so far) we have managed to stick together. All I can say is it takes a lot of grace. And love. And forgiveness.
I know for a fact that my dad wouldn’t be who he is today without his wife and my mom, Esther. And I think that Ruskey would say the same think about his wife, Sarah. This is part of the secret to my dad’s, and John’s, current success—a family who backs him up, and a man who backs up his family.
Joey and I packed up the car and said one final goodbye. One our way back we were mostly quiet; Joey was exhausted from our harried pace and mostly sleep. I drove and thought. I thought of Johnnie Billington. What did he do that set him apart from other great blues musicians—B.B. King or Elvis or John Lee Hooker? He came back.
but Mr. Johnnie felt the need to come back
to refertilize the place
it all came from
it wasn’t good enough to take and express himself
it wasn’t good enough to make a living
taking and expressing and making others
feel good for a drunken moment
somehow it was necessary to give back to the birthplace
to keep fertilizing the soil of the people, their youth
to plant seeds in the dreams and ambitions of
growing young men and women
and somehow make it possible for a person to
stay in the community where they were born
and make a respectable living
if all of the children left the Delta
the land were turn stale and rot
and there wasn’t enough time and luxury to
let a good thing go bad
if you didn’t put a guitar in a child’s hand
some gang leader would get them a gun
–John Ruskey, Excerpt from Part VI of the poem, “In the Beginning.”
We arrived home Sunday evening, unpacked, and soon started working on other projects. Joey finished a rough draft of the documentary to submit to Dr. Andy Opel so he could graduate, but knew that it wasn’t the final version that he had dreamed of making. The beginning of May, Joey started working for Live Oak Production Group full time. We had a couple projects that we needed to finish in a quick time-frame but, after that was finished, Dad and Joey were going to start work on editing the final cut of the Quapaw documentary. Joey finished work on the documentary, The Mighty Quapaws, this week, and here it is:
As a final end note, I want to thank Mr. John “Driftwood” Ruskey:
Thank you for inviting Joey and me to come to Clarksdale to film a documentary on the Quapaw Canoe Company. Just as Johnnie Billington deeply impacted your life, you have continued the chain by being an inspiration to both Joey and myself. After the expedition that we took down the Apalachicola River, you sent me a book in the mail called “The Artist’s Way.” In it, the author recommends writing every day. You stressed to me the importance of writing every day and how doing so changes your perception of the world. I started writing every day late last December, and have written every single morning since then with only skipping a handful of days. Writing daily has been of the best things I have ever done in my life, and it has allowed me to tap more into my creative side and also work on becoming a better writer—a little bit every day. So, John Ruskey, I want to say thank you so much for opening your home to Joey and me and for being a mentor to both of us. You have fundamentally altered the path of my life, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Nic finds himself in the Mississippi Delta at the legendary crossroads Yazoo Pass and Hwy 1
End Note: For the best reading experience, with great photos, go to Nic’s pages on the Live Oak Blog:
The Mighty Quapaw documentary film by Joey Dickinson for FSU and the Live Oak Production Group can be seen on the QCC home page http://www.island63.com or on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGH8qS9kzFQ. This is the most complete story yet told of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program: who we are, where we come from, and why we keep doing it!
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