Shantyboat River Fiddler

Pictured in the above newspaper photo (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 1, 1905) is Captain John F. Beeman, a river fiddler you’ll meet in my new book, Shantyboats & Roustabouts. Born in 1841 in Cayuga County, New York, he lived in Cuba as a child and later moved from Ashford, New York to Richland, Wisconsin in the mid-1850s. After he married Hannah Reichart, of Montbello, Wisconsin, they settled on a farm in Winona, Minnesota, but Hannah’s health problems led them to give up farm life for a “fresh-air cure” on the Mississippi River. In their new life on a shantyboat, they soon became one of the most popular couples in waterfront settlements from St. Paul to Dyersburg, Tennessee.

With his fiddle, Beeman entertained levee dwellers as well as boisterous river pigs—skilled loggers whose dangerous job was to break up log jams with a long pike and to steer massive rafts of fresh-cut white pine from rivers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to sawmills in Hannibal, St. Louis, and other towns on the Mississippi. From his signature rendition of the spirited traditional jig, “The Irish Washerwoman,” to “Dixie,” tearful Civil War ballads, and “Marching Through Georgia,” he had a song to suit every toe-tapping audience, North and South. After Hannah’s death in 1889, Capt. Beeman remained on the river nearly twenty more years. The river was in his blood. In June 1908, a neighbor spotted Beeman’s unmanned shantyboat floating aimlessly during high flood waters in Carr Island Slough near Venice, Illinois. Beeman, aboard but unconscious, lingered for a few months and died in November.

In Beeman’s final years, he continued to travel in a shantyboat with his chickens, pigeons, and sometimes his youngest son. “I sorter like the river,” he reflected to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter on January 1, 1905. “I have lived on it so long that I guess I’ll die on it.” Known for his superb fiddling and storytelling, Captain Beeman was a favorite in Little Oklahoma and other St. Louis waterfront communities. “The children love the old man,” the reporter observed. “They become his friends in whatever cove he lands; in every floating village, he is ‘grandpa.’ He plays for them and tells them wonderful tales of the river—the great wonderful river which they live on but know little about.”

Yes, Captain Beeman has long since gone the way old river fiddlers go, but if we close our eyes and imagine a moonlit shantyboat Saturday night somewhere in the Mississippi Valley as we listen to a rousing modern rendition of “The Irish Washerwoman” by Andre Rieu and John Sheahan, maybe we’ll better appreciate the cultural role of river fiddlers and fiddle music in poor waterfront communities in the era of Mark Twain.

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