The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part V: John Ruskey

June 14th, 2014

By Nic Stoltzfus

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 in his office.
John Ruskey in his office.

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.”

Roy Williams teaching one of the students from the Helena Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program how to carve a dugout canoe.
Roy Williams teaching one of the students from the Helena Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program how to carve a dugout canoe.

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:

[youtube id=”JGH8qS9kzFQ” height=”353″ width=”574″ marginbottom=”15″]

As a final end note, I want to thank Mr. John “Driftwood” Ruskey:

John,

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 Stoltzfus

June 14th, 2014

For more information about John Ruskey and the Quapaw Canoe Company click here.

For more information about Joey Dickinson, me, and Live Oak Production Group click here.

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