The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part IV: Deeper Thoughts on a Deep River

June 13th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

The bow of the Grasshopper, Quapaw's most recent handcrafted Voyager-style canoe.
The bow of the Grasshopper, Quapaw’s most recent handcrafted Voyager-style canoe.

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/
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.

A sign from the Delta Landing Boat Ramp.
A sign from the Delta Landing Boat Ramp.
The road to the levee.
The road to the levee.

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.

Stay tuned for the conclusion (and attached completed video!): The Quapaws of Clarksdale Part V: John Ruskey

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