Note: This is the fourth installment of my six-part blog series
“River Gator: Exploring the River, Expanding Ourselves,”
a recollection of my adventure on the Lower Mississippi River.
Out on the River, as you paddle, it’s nice to catch a rhythm with your boat mates. As you pull the water past you in sync, you feel how the sum is greater than the parts.
The boat glides with a seemingly effortless ease when the movements of the participants are in coordination. In that time of synchronicity there is a satisfying stillness as well. There is stillness in movement, and movement in stillness, I argue. Musicians seem to understand this concept and so I look to them to help explain.
“Still is still moving to me,” is a lyric by the great Willie Nelson that ran through my head while out on my River adventure. To me, it means though the surface seems still, there is a powerful current lying just below, on the River or in your thoughts.
A River as powerful as the Mississippi does require skill to navigate. To be safe on the River it’s important to study and be prepared for anything, but to enjoy the journey I had to let myself enjoy the ride as well. It’s great fun to go with the flow on the River, take a break from paddling, ride the current and be carried to a different place without doing a single thing. It seems to me, when we learn to listen to our instincts on the River about when to strive and when to be carried, we strengthen our ability to apply these life lessons to life itself.
Often as I sat on the shoreline of the big River, I thought about how I couldn’t possibly fathom just how much water was flowing by, but there is no mistaking the gut feeling of its immense power. (The Mighty Miss carries an average of 593,000 cubic feet per second at its mouth, almost seven times as much water as the flow falling over Niagara Falls.)
As I sat, content to watch the water flow by, I thought about where it came from and where it was headed. It reminded me of the song “Watching the Wheels” by John Lennon where he talks about his retreat from the “merry-go-round” of life and enjoying sitting on the sidelines. I felt this change in perspective sitting on the shore of the River. While watching the moving River flow by from the stillness of shore, we can sit and absorb a awareness of everything around us that we might have missed while whizzing by on the River – the birds, the flowers, the ancient tiny fossils in the sand bars.
When I talk to people about their experience on the River, it seems to be a common theme, and an ironic one at that, that going to a huge rushing River helps people find stillness, healing and themselves.
It is also a common thread that people sing on the River, about the River and next to the River and often they are singing the blues. Music out in the wild, filling the space between coyote howls and water rippling, is magical. That must be why there are so many great River songs: “Take me to the River”, “Black Water” and “Proud Mary” just to name a few. (For more songs about the River, check out the Mississippi River Travelers list here.)
Writing music requires inspiration, silence and time (all of which are plentiful on the River). This is a space of stillness where creativity happens – new songs are created and old songs are sung, just a man and his instrument adding his piece into the grand story.
One cannot possibly say enough about the impact of the River on music, especially on blues music. What I can say is that in my life, and my adventure on the River, there were hard times, challenges, questions and contractions. The blues may well be the best way to express the multi-dimensional ebbs and flows, the highs and lows of a complex environment like the River, and the Delta as a whole. By singing the blues, we can tell the truth about life’s hardships, transcend them and therefore not be destroyed by them.
Music in the Delta feels like it is haunted by ghosts, with the old guard watching over the new. My newest friend, Miss Emma Lou, my River guide’s daughter 6 year old daughter, sang “Rollin Stone”, a Delta blues classic, with all the grit of Muddy Waters. I watched in amazement as she sang, “I wish I was a catfish,” her old soul shining, moving and leading the next generation of blues lovers.
I think my favorite River song is “Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke who was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the same place as the Quapaw Canoe Company. This song holds universal truths and guides generations, providing solace during hard times. Mark River, Quapaw River guide and 1 Mississippi representative, wrote a blog some time back about this song and his observations on how the River gives us a powerful example that change comes in life. The River is a physical representation of that universal truth, with it’s constant reinvention of itself. That is one more reason to visit the new Rivergator map, to learn about the River as it is RIGHT NOW.
Listening to a voice, guitar or harmonica, sullen at times, sassy and sweet at others, I can be transported back to that time on the River where I sat and watched the water flow by. I can close my eyes and remember how stillness can create the space for a deeper kind of movement in the heart and the mind.
1 Mississippi Campaign Manager
Continue reading the rest of the series!
Plus a bonus blog: Top 10 Most Awesome Things About Quapaw Canoe Company