June 10th, 2014
By Nic Stoltzfus
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)
**Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog: The Quapaws in Clarksdale Part III: Getting Used to River-Time. Also, don’t forget that the last blog post on Saturday will have Joey’s completed documentary attached.