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Skip Heller   Contributor -- California

                          Photo by Lori Lakin Hutcherson

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About the Skip Heller Trio: 

Try to write songs like:
Billy Joe Shaver, Tom Waits, Roger Miller, Stan Ridgway, Merle Haggard, John Hartford, Dave Alvin, Paul Weller, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Dylan, Tom T Hall

Try and sing 'em like:
Merle, Waylon, Phil Alvin, Big Al Anderson, Elvis, Benny Martin

Try to pick like:
Curtis Mayfield, Lowman Pauling, Jerry Reed, Johnny Guitar Watson, Roy Nichols, Norman Blake, Big Al Anderson, Marc Ribot

Bands that I steal from: Merle Haggard and the Strangers, John Hartford's Aereo Plain line-up, the Blasters, Waylon Jennings' 70s touring band, the Band, NRBQ, the Replacements, Sir Douglas Quintet, Osborne Bros, X

I've played/recorded with:
NRBQ, Stan Ridgway, Ray Campi, Lalo Guerrero, Big Jay McNeely, Big Sandy, Wanda Jackson, Todd Rundgren, Martin Mull, THE FLINTSTONES, DEXTER'S LAB, Billy Swan, Jamie Hartford, Katy Moffatt, Rosie Flores, Chris Gaffney, DJ Bonebrake, Sammy Masters, Bob Dorough, Les Baxter, Yma Sumac, Robert Drasnin, Rick Danko, Dave Alvin, Carol Kaye, Terry Adams, Karen Mantler, the Hot Shots, Amy Farris, and many, many vainglorious others.

Skip standing next to the Natchez Queen


A Few Opinions and Observations I Have About Steamboats

 by Skip Heller


The steamboat is an engine on a raft, with $11,000 worth of jigsaw work around it.

     Steamships are built of steel and are severely plain except on the inside where the millionaire tourist is confined.  Steamboats are built of wood, tin, shingles, canvas, and twine, and look like a bride of babylon.  If a steamboat should go out to sea, the ocean would take one playful slap at it and people would be picking up kindling on the beach for the next eleven years.

However, the steamboat does not go to sea.  Its home is on the river, which does not rise up and stand on end in a storm.  It is necessary that a steamboat be light and airy because if it were heavy it would stick to the bottom of the river several feet and become an island instead of a means of transportation.

The steamboat is from a hundred to three hundred feet long and thirty to fifty feet wide, but does not extend more than three feet into the water.  This is because that is all the water there is.  A steamboat must be so built that when the river is low and the sandbars come out for air, the first mate can tap a keg of beer and run the boat four miles on the suds.


I first encountered this in a book called The Log Of The Betsy Ann, written by Frederick Way, Jr., the greatest river writer of the 20th century.  But he didn’t write this description of the steamboat.  He had saved a clipping about it from his childhood, probably from The Waterways Journal, the main trade magazine of western river navigation since 1887.  I can’t tell you when it went from being a paper concern to a website.  My subscription ran out in 1994.


My introduction to steamboat life – that there was such a thing – came first via the songs of bluegrass giant John Hartford, who was to riverboats what Jimmie Rodgers was to trains: the voice of it.  While other musicians had written riverboat songs before – Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz-age hit “Riverboat Shuffle” was likely the biggest hit – and certainly other musicians had made reputations via their works in steamboat bands.  Louis Armstrong, Buster Bailey, even Earl Bostic played in bands on Mississippi River steamboats, most usually on the Streckfuss Line, which was the route that went the full north-south length of the river.  John Streckfuss maintained a line of steamboats that dominated, and the role of them in the early development of jazz is pretty big.  A formative Bix Beiderbecke first heard Louis Armstrong from a Streckfuss boat, the JS, a gorgeous sternwheeler (wheel in the back, not on the side).  One sees a picture of her and imagines a warm night in the 1920’s, dance music wafting off the boat in the evening wind, with the young Bix hearing for the first time the undeniable, unimpeachable horn of Louis.  This would easy to dismiss as pure apocryphal romance were it not the truth.  And the glamour of these Brides of Babylon was part of these romantic notions.


Too often now, walking onto a steamboat can be like setting foot on a floating Laughlin, NV.  The boats are gorgeous, but the music and floorshows are egregious.  Step onto the General Jackson at Opryland and see what I mean.  This is a gorgeous boat, the boat John Hartford in fact piloted at the end of his life, and you walk into a typical Nashvegas bar band sleepwalking through Van Morrison’s musical sphincter-lock “Brown Eyed Girl.”


The dinner shows that typify millennial steamboat entertainment are not unlike the artless fare available in Reno.  That these vessels were once the breeding ground of a Louis Armstrong is hard to believe.   Tommy Tune would seem the more natural result of this world.


Steamboats aren’t cheap to ride on.  Nor do they move at all quickly.  And the folks attracted to riding on them make a big deal out of it.  There are all kinds of steamboating social groups.  The Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen seem to be the most longstanding.   But there have been for years many people in and out of their own social affiliations, hoarding, trading, and loving steamboat photos, postcards, and memorabilia.  The sons and daughters’ enthusiasm – again, with Captain Way at the helm of what was an early and momentous undertaking in those heady pre-desktop publishing days – The S and D Reflector, a magazine he started in 1964, crammed with photos and filled with some of the best river writing since… well, since Fred Way was a giant.  Any of his books will give you an insight as to what tempts people to the river life, and the inner logic as to what holds them there.  Former Waterways Journal editor Jack Simpson told me that Fred Way was every bit as great a riverman as he was an author, and he was a great author.


So was Samuel Clemens, the great Mark Twain, whose Huckleberry Finn is great because it can make an eleven-year-old boy in a South Jersey factory town dream his way into a life unlike any other he’s ever even heard about. 


But the throwdown for me came in the form of John Hartford’s 1976 album Mark Twang, which celebrated a life of bluegrass music and riverboat life.  That’s where the bug bit me for real.  The songs “Skippin’ In The Mississippi Dew”, “Let Him Go On Mama”, and “Julia Belle Swain” painted the most fantastic pictures of fiddles, steamboats, banjos, old-time rivermen, and so forth.  Up until that time, the popular image of John Hartford was as a sad-eyed banjo player on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour television show, and he was best known for having written the enormo-hit “Gentle On My Mind”.  But Mark Twang – which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album in that bicentennial year – was the first step to Hartford’s reinvention from hippie newgrass innovator to a sort of neoclassical rivergrass statesmen, complete with pocketwatch, bowler hat, and river-oriented concept albums.  Again, Hartford was to steamboats what Jimmie Rodgers was to railroad trains.


John Hartford was a one-man bluegrass machine, whose solo shows were as great as anything I’ve ever seen.  And his songs – influenced so deeply by the writings of Captain Way, who John knew and loved and venerated – probably did more than anything since Twain to popularize the languid myth of American river life.   They were my point of reference for all this river stuff.


I spoke to John Hartford often (and with great humility) about riverboats and bluegrass music.  I spoke to Jack Simpson of the Waterways Journal about the great river writers – Fred Way, Jimmy Swift, and C.W. Stoll.  I learned about what kind of test you have to take to get your pilot’s license (draw a map of the river, complete with dams, locks, levees, bridges etc), how hard it is to get through deckhand’s school (I almost went), and all like that.  It’s not a job for people who hate homework.  There’s a lot of hardware involved, much of it archaic (stoves, boilers etc).  There’s a lot of stuff usual to commercial transit of any type – operations, safety, how fast and slow etc.  And they’re slow.  20 mph is hauling ass.  The Twilight, which lives on the Mississippi, is the only steamboat I know of that brags of having pulled a water-skier.  That said, it’s not a pure steamboat.  It has some diesel in it. 


(What a fantastic boat, though.  It was built by Dennis Trone, who also built and operated the Julia Belle Swain, which is as beautiful a boat as I’ve ever seen.)


That slowness is of course the beauty of these Brides of Babylon.  To ride on one is to experience a kind of lyricism of terrain.  I’ve boarded a few, but my favorite is the Natchez Queen, which lives in New Orleans.  Go for the day cruise -- which for about $25 will get you three hours of peace, quiet, good Dixieland small band jazz (a trio of piano, banjo, and singing trumpet player), and a very good lunch (get the fried chicken).  It’s not as big or as opulent a boat as the Julia Belle, but it’s of decent size, and the views on either side of the river are gorgeous, Katrina damage notwithstanding.


There is an old and barely explicable feeling to making this type of day trip.  When you first board, you hear the circus-y music of the calliope, the steam organ that sits atop the boat.  The whistle screams out as the craft raises steam and orientation is found atop the brown, shiny water of the Mississippi River, seeming to be moving under the boat faster than the boat itself moves.  Which, actually, it is.  The boat feels almost inert.  The water is just over the side of your deck at your feet, if you’re in any mood to get your shoes wet.  It is said that, should you get your feet wet on the deck of a steamboat, you’ll never leave the water.


You can hear the jazz group playing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” or “Muskrat Ramble” much as the Armstrong generation of musicians must have done it.  If you’re sitting on a deck chair, you hear it wafting out of the dining room window, which is usually open in the hotter New Orleans months.  You swat the odd mosquito away from your mac and cheese, and you watch stuff pass by slowly.  Thinking, acting, or even moving with any speed are strictly contra-indicated.  The air is thick.  Occasionally you see people watching the boat from the banks on either side.  They wave, you wave back.  The boat moves slowly enough that you get a good look at these folks.  If you look at their waving hand close enough, you could likely read their palms.


Our lives move in most ways too quickly.  Your phone can take pictures.  Each of us is contactable even while on vacation, and don’t even bring email into the equation.  Each of us is a heart attack in the making, it seems.


But on this day, on this boat, watching life move slow on the river and along the banks, one gets a surer idea as to just how fast our hearts were made to beat, how much blood pressure folks are made by nature to withstand, at just what tempo the human mind and spirit are best qualified to function.


I do not feel that antiquity has any sort of virtue built into it.  Honest.  But neither do I feel that contemporaniety is the answer.  New is not automatically better – often it is simply new.


Steamboats are slow, fragile, ungainly creations.  The freight they once carried now comes via trucks and trains.  Their position as passenger craft has long been supplanted by big cruise lines.  There’s no argument for having them.  Hell, the Delta Queen -– once celebrated for surviving having been on the ocean – is now a floating hotel in Chattanooga, less a boat than what of a boat lives on.  Why these Brides of Babylon still hold any appeal is strictly aesthetic. 


And in this mad, bad, speedy age of ours, we need that slow, beautiful vessel the way we need Duke Ellington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Grandma Moses, and Irving Thalberg.  I swear.



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