Written February 5th, 2015
By Joey Dickinson
Last Thursday, I made my way from Blountstown to Clarksdale, Mississippi, by way of the beautiful, hilly backroads of Alabama. I passed through seemingly endless farm country only seeing gas stations every 50 miles or so. I arrived in Clarksdale around 4 pm and Mark River greeted me and helped put my bags inside the Quapaw youth hostel, where I’d be staying for the weekend. River and I sat down, both of us glad to be inside a warm building instead of outside in the cold. River told me that this part of the year is their slowest, and that the canoe company rarely does trips on the Mississippi River in the first two months of the year due to near-freezing water and harsh winds. He explained to me that, although they aren’t busy with customers, they are busy working on something else: Rivergator. The whole crew at the Quapaw Canoe Company has working diligently this winter on compiling a mile-by-mile paddler’s guide to the Lower Mississippi River. This is truly an incredible feat and is sure to be a remarkable publication for anyone interested in the great outdoors, but especially those interested in paddling.
That night, River and I got supper at the Stone Pony, a local pizza place only a block away from the Canoe Company. I ate a delicious pizza partly because of its name “Jo-Jo.”(Meat lovers’ pizza.) It was great to relax, enjoy the taste of the town, and especially to catch up with my big brother River, but I still had one thing on my mind: the film festival! My film was going to be shown tomorrow evening. Although I’d been to a handful of film festivals from Apalachicola to North Carolina, from my previous experience in Clarksdale, I knew that there was no point in developing expectations, because the town is chockfull of surprises.
Friday morning I woke up and walked downstairs to the morning pow-wow and saw John Ruskey and Braxton Barden—it was almost a year ago that Nic and I came to Clarksdale to make the documentary. It was great to see all of them again and it felt good to be back with my friends in my home away from home. After the pow-wow, two graduates of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program, Markevious “Dinky” and Woody, met us at in John’s office to pick up supplies for tabling at the film festival. Ruskey made sure they took along a handful of his watercolor posters depicting the Mississippi River. After they gathered the material, all of us walked over to the movie theater where the film festival was being held. I was in awe: not only was this an old building, it was an antique movie theatre! Complete with a huge downstairs theater with a renovated sound system and a high-grade projector, the theater also had a staircase leading up to an upstairs theater, where a smaller projector was set up to play films created more on the amateur side. I sat down with River and Braxton and started watching films on the big screen. The first film we watched was created by Bianca Zaharescu, the program director for Spring Initiative. As I learned from watching the film, the Spring Initiative is an after-school program in Clarksdale program focused on exposing students to a wide range of skills with a focus on outside-the-classroom learning. While Nic and I were filming with the Quapaws last spring, we heard about this program numerous times. I knew that the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was connected to the Spring Initative, and Bianca’s film filled in the gaps as to how the two programs are intertwined. Her film was heartfelt and, at times, comedic and exposed the way in which the Quapaw Canoe Company introduces Spring students to the outdoors and teaches them how to overcome fear of the river. If you’re raised in the Mississippi Delta, you’re instructed to stay as far away from the river as possible, but the Quapaws are helping to prove otherwise.
(You can watch Bianca’s film, Canoeing into Confidence: A Film about Overcoming Fear, here)
After her film came to an end, I introduced myself to Bianca to tell her what I’d learned from her film, and to compliment her on capturing such a great story. She told me that she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the screening of my film, The Mighty Quapaws, as Spring had a field trip of sorts later that day. I thanked her and went and watched a few more films before 4:30, when my documentary was scheduled to play. Not long before the film started, to my surprise, I saw Bianca with a few other adults and 40 kids shuffling into the room—their field trip had transformed into attending the Clarksdale Film Festival! I was delighted to have such a big, enthusiastic crowd, but I started to worry that there wouldn’t be enough room in the upstairs theater to fit this many people! Luckily, everyone had a seat, and River introduced me to everyone. I delivered a short statement about how the film came to be, what I set out to do, and what the end-product consisted of. The film played and the kids, surprisingly enough, quietly watched the entire film. I watched them as they took in the documentary: they seemed intrigued by the story, and many of them knew the students on screen. I looked around the room and thought to myself: this is pretty special. I was proud to have come full circle – I developed an idea, turned it into something material, dedicated it to the Mighty Quapaw Students, and, finally, showed it to a large group of Clarksdalians in their very own local theater. My only hope, as had been from the beginning, was that the film did justice to the incredible story, as well as the incredible people involved. This seemed like a good start.
After the film, there was a wine reception in the lobby of the theater, complete with live blues, headlined by Watermelon Slim, my favorite of all the local Clarksdale performers. We watched his performance and then made our way back to Quapaw HQ, ready to go to sleep after a long and satisfying day. The next day, Saturday, River and I watched more films that were part of the festival. Highlights include a restored 1917 silent version of Tom Sawyer, which was especially fun to watch in such an old venue, Life of Riley, a film about the life story of B.B King and his influence on modern blues directed by Jon Brewer, and Cheesehead Blues: The Adventures of a Dutchman in the Delta, a film about local Clarksdale resident Theo Dasbach from the Netherlands. The evening headliner was a film titled, Take me to the River directed by Martin Shore. This film was about inter-generational and inter-racial influence on music in Memphis. In spite of a history of discrimination and segregation, musicians of all races and ages came together, understanding that they all had the same goals – to create timeless music, as well as long lasting examples for artists to come. From Bobby Blue Bland to Snoop Dogg, from Charlie Musselwhite (who was in attendance at the film’s screening) to Lil P-Nut, this film celebrated older, established musicians instructing and guiding a younger generation of artists, while also touching upon the way in which younger musicians are paying tribute and respect to those older artists who influenced and inspired them. I thought that this main event served as a highly poetic closing to the film festival due to the parallels between the themes in this film and those in “The Mighty Quapaws.” Not only the concept of an older generation that is willing to pass on what they know to younger people, but also the story of younger people who are willing to learn from those who paved the way for them. From a wider perspective, it’s about people who appreciate something special when they see it and put their heart and soul into sustaining it. And of course, on top of it all, there’s music. To me, music always has and always will be the overriding theme in anything related to Clarksdale. It all starts with the music.
That night we made our way to Bluesberry Café to watch Watermelon Slim play again. To my delight, he was playing guitar this time, something I’ve heard him do on CDs, but had yet to see in person. I was surprised to see Watermelon playing the guitar face-up, or table-top style, with a slide. This was the first time I saw anyone play this way, and I was pretty honored to watch Watermelon Slim play using this technique. It was like watching something 70 years in the past. Slim is my favorite for many reasons. First off, he’s the best harmonica player I’ve ever seen. He can hit notes that aren’t supposed exist, and he can hold them for as long as he wishes. This skill is accompanied by a haunting, toothless, truck-driver, Vietnam-veteran voice that makes your skin stand up when howling into the juke-joint air. And to top it off, as I’d just discovered, his unique guitar playing. His ability to keep a rhythm while singing and even playing harmonica was impeccable, and every song he played carried every word he delivered deep into my soul.
The next day it was cold and rainy, but I told River that I wanted to go out and see the Mississippi anyway, and he agreed to take me to see it. You can’t go all the way to the Mississippi Delta and not see the big river. Way out by in the Delta, amongst miles and miles of what were now leveled cotton fields, there’s no cell reception and barely any radio signal. Quiet. Eerie. After a while, I plugged in my phone to play an album I’d kept on there for as long as I can remember, Robert Johnson- The Complete Recordings (recorded in 1937). As I heard Mr. Johnson wail, “Come on back to Friar’s Point mama, barrelhouse all night long…” we came to Friar’s Point, a small community consisting of both shacks and mansions, a strange amalgam. The shacks came from families, most likely sharecroppers, whose families had lived in the Delta for hundreds of years. The million-dollar mansions were erected by modern Mississippi money-makers. Old South, New South, South remade. We finally made our way to the water’s edge. Although the air was icy cold and pelting freezing rain, I left the car and overlooked the mighty river from a ledge about 20 feet above it’s surface. It’s hard to stop staring at such a large, mysterious, powerful entity, but what really kept my eyes glued was that, if you look hard enough, the river doesn’t even look like it’s flowing one way or the other. As a whole, you can definitely tell which way it’s going, of course. However, if you focus on just a small spot on the surface, particularly toward the shore, the water is not so much flowing as it is swirling. It’s mesmerizing. Like a whirlpool of memories collected from as far as Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to the man-made lakes of St. Louis, this is where it all comes shooting down like an unstoppable army commissioned by Mother Nature herself, en route to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s quite a lot to take in if you’re a Florida boy such as myself, more accustomed to the humble rivers found close by such as the Peace or Caloosahatchee.
The next morning, after enjoying a wonderful helping of raft potatoes made by John Ruskey, I drove south towards home. I thought about my time there, and in particular this question: Why did John Ruskey decide upon Clarksdale as the place to live and build his company? Of all the cities on the river—why Clarksdale? Well, I might be wrong, but the closest answer I could come up with is this: As John Ruskey describes it in Rivergator, it’s a place of opposites – of overwhelming beauty and insurmountable power. “It’s the one place where everything makes sense,” he says. However, these contradictions actually compliment each other, rendering a perfect place for new beginnings inspired and fueled by ideas and lessons from the past. First off, the Mississippi Delta is a place with a long, colorful history. Not all of this history is pretty, but it is history nonetheless, and when so many roots are planted in one place, things tend to continue growing, even if it’s below the surface, or even in the air. This is where the blues was born, where oppression and tribulation was transposed into haunting rhythms and soul-piercing words. I believe that this is why Clarksdale is still one of the only places in the world where you can see and hear authentic blues, from artists old and new. Just the same, John Ruskey took what he learned from playing the blues from a seasoned blues legend, and turned it into something new. On the same note, Clarksdale lies in the heart of the Delta, the land-child of the Mother Mississippi – the greatest river system in North America, something which, in spite of its overwhelming power and majesty, is still being misused and overlooked. This river, and in turn the land surrounding it, has been changing drastically for centuries, and yet, is still consistent in its ways and its gifts.
This land, and this water, of complimentary contradictions called out to John Ruskey, along with all those who follow him, not only to learn from its existing conditions and from stories of long ago in order to preserve and protect it, but also to find new ways to study, explore, and advocate it, along with its overwhelming awe. This part of the United States is like a different country altogether, full of the most interesting people you could ever imagine meeting, and they all have their own reasons for staying there. Luckily, people like the Quapaws see it as their home, and will always be fighting to improve and restore it.
“On the first day,
there was darkness
and it was split asunder
and the juices spilled forth
and a pure sound was issued,
and it hovered over the water,
and you saw, it was good,
ah, and yes, yes it was.
I will look
to the shining on the side of the river,
it flows in pieces,
straight from the North,
I will look
through the willows,
above the branches on the beaches,
for the sound
that forever flows
through it all”
- Lyrics from “The Flowing” by John Ruskey