Exploring the Mighty Mississippi: A Journey through History, Music, and Culture

2023-09-27 09:18:17

Deep in the southern United States, on the outskirts of the small town of Clarksdale, John Ruskey climbs into a canoe and paddles out onto the “father of all rivers,” as they say here. To that murky stream to which America owes so much: power, wealth, world literature, the blues.

The water helped early settlers to develop the land. Ulysses S. Grant won an important Civil War battle on the shore. Mark Twain met Captain Bixby. “The Mississippi,” Ruskey whispers, “made us what we are today.”

Ruskey, a tough 58-year-old American, stands at the stern of the canoe, his gray-blond hair fluttering in the wind. He starts a song for his three passengers. “Oh mighty Mississippi,” sings Ruskey, “oh mighty Mississippi.” It is a quiet morning, just after sunrise, the boat glides through a light fog. All you can hear is Ruskey’s rough singing and the dipping of the paddles into the river: Splat-splash. Pat-pat.

Ruskey stowed his luggage – tents, sleeping bags and provisions for two days – under the bench seats of the nine-meter-long boat. The group is making good progress as this journey leads downstream, from Clarksdale towards New Orleans. Mississippi is on the left and Arkansas is on the right. Ruskey wants to cover around 40 kilometers on this tour. But it feels like it will go much further: deep into the soul of America.

One of the most powerful rivers in the world

Ruskey is the owner of the Quapaw Canoe Company and offers canoe tours on the lower reaches of the Mississippi. With this type of transportation, he builds on traditions from the time before European settlement and colonization of North America: Centuries ago, the indigenous people traveled on many rivers and lakes with canoes made of wood and tree bark, including on the Mississippi.

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The river is one of the most powerful in the world, comparable to the Amazon and Nile. It rises in the north of the USA, winds 3,782 kilometers south, through ten states, and flows into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. It can still be seen from space, like some kind of winding ribbon dividing America.

Huge: The size of the Mississippi is particularly noticeable from a tiny canoe; in the lower reaches it is over a kilometer wide

Quelle: company john ruskey

The canoeists make their way through shallow waves, past oak, birch and cypress trees. Ruskey no longer sings, he now chews on a blade of grass. “Behind the trees,” he says, pointing to the shore, “everything began.” By “everything,” Ruskey means what the people of Mississippi love, whether black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat: the blues .

Local bands play night after night in the semi-darkness of the bars in Clarksdale and other small towns like Greenville, Leland and Indianola. Not on stages, it’s usually too narrow for that. The musicians simply sit between the guests with their guitars. Particularly popular is the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, owned by Hollywood star Morgan Freeman. “Sometimes,” says Ruskey, “Morgan comes by in person.”

This is where the Delta blues was born

So what happened behind the trees where Ruskey’s canoe glides past when it comes to blues? Ruskey goes a little further. The area – from the metropolis of Memphis in the north to the small town of Vicksburg in the south – is alluvial land. The Mississippi regularly overflows its banks here, making the earth fertile and enabling the cultivation of a valuable raw material: cotton.

“The first pickers were slaves. They sang about longing, loneliness and love while doing the hard work – creating a new style of music,” says Ruskey. It was called Delta blues and paved the way for many other genres, such as jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. “The sound that was born on the Mississippi shaped all of America.”

John Ruskey looks at the river

Source: Stefan Bagsbacher

For four hours, Ruskey and his passengers paddle down the stream, accompanied by the regular splashing of the paddles’ immersion. Then they stop on the shore of a small island. It has no name on Ruskey’s river map, just a number: 61. Island 61 is a sandbar, a piece of desert in the middle of the Mississippi.

It’s fascinating how quickly the landscape changes. The canoeists were just sailing along forests full of life, now they find themselves in a quiet wasteland. You don’t see any birds, no mosquitoes, not even a bush.

The Mississippi can migrate

“The Mississippi is unpredictable,” Ruskey says on the sandbar. He has put on a frayed hat to block the midday sun. It’s not just the landscape that changes abruptly, explains Ruskey. Sometimes the whole river takes a new course. Island 61 bears witness to this. Over the years the island has moved closer to the east bank. “Something like this can have dramatic consequences,” says Ruskey. “The whims of the Mississippi determine the fate of entire cities.”

The town of Rodney, further south, experienced exactly that. Around 1860, dozens of steamships docked in its harbor every day and the economy was booming. Shops, banks and saloons lined the streets. There was even an opera house.

Missionaries and Native Americans on the river in the 17th century. The river was an important transport route from early on

Quelle: Bettmann/Getty Images

But starting in 1870, a sandbar formed in the Mississippi. It grew and grew, slowly moving the river westward. As a result, Rodney was cut off from the water and turned into a ghost town.

Today you can visit the ruins. Driving along Rodney Road south of Vicksburg you will see old stables, a cemetery and a red brick church. Everything is overgrown, back in nature’s hands, and you get an idea of ​​how powerful the Mississippi is. How dependent the people here are on the “father of all rivers”. In recent years, several dams have been built to keep the flow from shifting again and leaving another city – literally – behind: New Orleans.

The river is America’s lifeline

When Ruskey’s group sets off from Island 61, things suddenly become uncomfortable. The canoe rocks wildly up and down. Cold water splashes over the bow. The trigger cannot be overlooked: a 300-meter-long cargo ship struggling upstream with a bubbling engine. On Ruskey’s radio you can hear the captain talking to another skipper and insisting on being the first to pass a narrow passage. “The crews are under a lot of pressure,” Ruskey said, as the Mississippi River calmed down. “You have to be on time, especially now that many goods are in short supply in America.”

Some captains are therefore ruthless. Ruskey calls them the machos of the Mississippi. Every now and then, passenger ships with the characteristic paddle wheel at the stern chug past, some are almost 100 years old, others were recently built in the old style.

Saint Louis – one of the birthplaces of the blues

Quelle: picture alliance / Zoonar

The Mississippi remains America’s economic lifeline today. A north-south highway carrying 500 million tons of freight annually. Mass transportation began around 1850, in the golden era of steamships. 1,200 “steamers” transported the goods of the time: cotton, sugar, rice, wood, coal, tobacco. Historians say the Mississippi helped build the nation – and played a large part in making the United States the world’s most important economy.

During the era of steamboats, the Mississippi was also the site of a fateful encounter. In February 1857, a young man traveled to New Orleans on the Paul Jones and approached the captain, Horace Bixby. The passenger dreamed of one day piloting boats across the Mississippi himself. Bixby agreed to train him. The teacher had no idea that his student would become famous: it was Samuel Langhorne Clemens – who later published books under the name Mark Twain. Twain described the adventures with Horace Bixby in “Life on the Mississippi.”

The electricity helped decide the civil war

So what John Ruskey says seems to be true. America’s economy, literature, music and history would look different without this river. During the Civil War it was even said that whoever controls the Mississippi controls the entire country.

That’s why both sides fought bitterly for the land along the river. In 1863 the decisive battle took place 200 kilometers south of Ruskey’s canoeists – in Vicksburg. General Ulysses S. Grant besieged the city for 47 days and ultimately triumphed over the Southern troops. It was a turning point in the war.

Idyll. A waterfowl taking off from the Mississippi

Quelle: picture alliance / PantherMedia

Today, the battle can be relived at Vicksburg National Military Park. Visitors can see 144 original cannons and the USS Cairo, an ironclad that once cruised the Mississippi. The former battlefield is hilly, blue and red flags mark where the northern and southern soldiers were entrenched. Some of their trenches still remain. It’s an oppressive feeling climbing down into them.

As the sun sets over the Mississippi, Ruskey heads for land again: Island 62. The group pushes the canoe onto the beach – and finds themselves in front of a jungle. Ash trees and magnolias rise into the sky, their crowns populated by hummingbirds. Great blue herons stalk through thick reeds. Insects are buzzing everywhere. There is a rustling in the undergrowth. The paddlers hope that it is otters or beavers hiding there, not the Mississippi crocodiles, which can be up to five meters long. Ruskey gives the all-clear after a check.

The brave swim in the ice-cold water

It’s strange: Island 61 looked like the Sahara, Island 62 is reminiscent of the Amazon rainforest. The group sets up the tents for the night. Ruskey then asks: “Who’s coming for a swim?” The Mississippi doesn’t seem inviting. It contains large amounts of sand and clay and has a brown shimmer. But it’s clean, at least in this area.

Around 120 species of fish live in the river. As a human being, however, you can’t stand it for long. Because the water is ice cold. “You have to go through there now,” shouts Ruskey. “The Mississippi baptism is a must for every visitor.”

After the bath, Ruskey lights a campfire. It is a cloudless night, a band of thousands of small lights sparkles in the sky, the Milky Way. Everyone is resting, after all we have to continue early the next day, ten kilometers still have to be paddled. The group listens to the chirping, humming and crackling of nature. Then Ruskey takes out a guitar and starts singing his favorite song: “Oh mighty Mississippi.”

Source: Infographic WELT

Tips and information

How do you get there?

For example, with Lufthansa via Houston to Jackson or with Delta via Atlanta. Jackson is the capital of the state of Mississippi. Entry into the USA with full vaccination, there is no longer an obligation to test before entry.

Canoe trips

John Ruskey organizes canoe trips on the lower Mississippi with his Quapaw Canoe Company, he is the only operator in the area. Two people pay a daily rate of $630; for multi-day tours, an additional $35 per person per day for tent and sleeping bag (island63.com).


If you want to explore the state of Mississippi more comfortably, you can sleep in the “Hooker Hotel” in downtown Clarksdale, for example, from 204 dollars per night (vrbo.com/3828162ha). The “Tallahatchie Flats” near the small town of Greenwood are a special experience; you can stay in the houses of former plantation workers, from 90 dollars per night (tallahatchieflats.com).

Sightseeing features

Im Vicksburg National Military Park (nps.gov/vick) you can relive the Battle of Vicksburg and visit an old armored cruiser. At Dockery Farms (dockeryfarms.org) near Cleveland you can get an impression of life on a cotton plantation.

The BB King Museum (bbkingmuseum.org) in Indianola shows instruments of the blues musician who died in 2015. Also exciting for music fans: the DeltaBlues Museum (deltabluesmuseum.org) in Clarksdale.

Further information


Participation in the trip was supported by the Memphis & Mississippi Transportation Office. Our standards of transparency and journalistic independence can be found at go2.as/unabhaengigkeit

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This article was originally published in June 2022.

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