The Mississippi River is over 2,300 miles long and some musicians have traveled much of that distance in song, either literally or metaphorically. Here’s a sample.
John Hartford was the quintessential river folk musician. Early in his career, he wrote the song Gentle on My Mind that became a big hit for Glen Campbell. The royalties from that one song provided a steady, comfortable income for Hartford, giving him the luxury of writing and performing music that he was passionate about, which included a lot of songs about life on America’s rivers, especially the Mississippi. He had a riverboat pilot’s license and spent some summer days piloting the Julia Belle Swain on the Upper Mississippi. In 1976 he recorded a stripped-down album of songs inspired by the Mississippi River called Mark Twang. Hartford died June 4, 2001 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but his music remains the gold standard for fans of acoustic folk. In Delta Queen Waltz, Hartford sings about the romance of riverboat cruises on the Mississippi.
John Hartford: Delta Queen Waltz (1989)
The Rainmakers formed in Kansas City in the mid-1980s, playing a style of rock influenced by the likes of Chuck Berry and Credence Clearwater Revival. They had a more enthusiastic fan base in Europe (especially in Scandinavia) than in the US, disbanded in 1990, and reunited in 1994 to produce an album for their Norwegian fans. After the album Skin was released in 1997, they quit recording again, then reformed again in 2011 and released a new CD. In 1986 The Rainmakers recorded a song called Downstream in which they take a trip along the Mississippi River, picking up a few friends along the way.
The Rainmakers: Downstream (1986)
Johnny Cash grew up in the Mississippi Delta of northeast Arkansas. At age three, his family moved to the town of Dyess, just 15 miles from the Mississippi River. I’ve come across three Cash songs that reference the Mississippi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more. My favorite, Big River, is a rollicking voyage down the length of the Mississippi River in which the narrator is following a woman. At barely two minutes long, it takes almost as much time to say “Mississippi River” as it does to listen to this song.
Johnny Cash: Big River (1957)
Chicago-based singer/songwriter Al Rose is known for delivering genre-busting songs with sharp, witty lyrics. His wit is readily apparent in Down the Mississippi, a song about a trip down the river as an escape, one that might make his lover appreciate him more.
Al Rose: Down the Mississippi (2008)
Minneapolis-based singer Larry Long is a long-time advocate for greater protection of the Mississippi River’s ecosystem. In the early 1980s he helped organize the Mississippi River Revival, a arts and environmental advocacy campaign that traveled along much of the river and spawned volunteer cleanup campaigns that persist to this day. In 1983, he wrote Along the Blue Highway, a song about the unifying force of the river.
Larry Long: Along the Blue Highway (1983)
What are your favorites?
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011