What the Mississippi River Means to Me

At an awards ceremony inside the beautiful historic St. Louis Mercantile Library on April 6, 2023, I was honored to join the list of distinguished recipients of the James V. Swift Medal for excellence in maritime literature. Sara Hodge, Curator of the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, presented me with the Medal for my book, Shantyboats and Roustabouts.

In a talk after the presentation of the Medal, I looked back on my riverbank childhood and the ancestral river heritage that inspired me to write the book. The Mississippi River has been a lifelong friend to me and a dynamic cultural influence on my writings as a historian and as a singer-songwriter. I grew up in Monkey Run, Missouri, a village of about 100 people in the river bottoms three miles south of Hannibal. Located in the northeast corner of Ralls County near the Mark Twain Cave, the village consisted of modest homes along the river and railroad tracks. Some might call them shacks, but we didn’t. Monkey Run once was a section of Ilasco, a cement company town of southern and eastern European immigrants torn down long ago. Monkey Run was inhabited mainly by fishermen and others like my father who worked at the cement plant, and my mother, a shoe factory worker and a retail clerk.

The river was my playground as a child. It was home. A place to fish, swim, and daydream on a pile of tangled driftwood where Marble Creek empties into the Mississippi. It was a place to while away the time and a place of many secrets. A place to sneak a cigarette, sip hurriedly from a nearly empty bottle of Old Crow whiskey hidden in the rafters of a neighbor’s shed. A place to build a raft, to ice skate, and a place for a treehouse in the tall cotton woods that blow little white kisses to float, flutter, and seed in the springtime air. Above all, it was a place to shake the blues. Sounds of barge traffic, freight trains, tugboats, calliopes, gandy dancers, and dance bands on excursion boats filled my childhood. For families like mine who lacked indoor plumbing, the river was sometimes a place to take a towel and a bar of soap before supper.

Until I left for college, I helped to set out trot lines, jug lines, baskets, and bank lines, and I camped, coon hunted, and duck hunted on the islands with kinfolks, friends, and commercial fishermen in the village. How well I remember tubs filled with beautiful buffalo, carp, perch, channel cat, and flatheads hauled up out of the river. I developed a love of the Mississippi but also a healthy respect for it. My earliest fragmented memory is that of a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler being rushed in my frantic mother’s arms down a dirt alley to the tracks and up the crossties to the mouth of the river, where a neighbor drowned. For all my mother knew, the victim might have been my father, who was fishing nearby when Walter “Tudie” Smith drowned in March 1953.

Three generations of my maternal grandmother’s family of day laborers, fishermen, and washerwomen were part of the waterways culture of shantyboats that flourished in the era of Mark Twain. In 1901, they were among those kicked off the southside levee at the foot of Jefferson Street in Hannibal. Burlington Northern Railroad agents and local vigilantes stormed in with steel bars and axes to drive them off the levee. They smashed the houseboats of owners who refused to leave as well as the boats that were unseaworthy. The attackers jeered and taunted waterfront dwellers and scattered the meager possessions of those who put up a fight on the shoreline. The sneering hatred directed at waterfront dwellers was palpable.

Shantyboats in Rock Island, Illinois, 1915

I left the Mississippi as an adult, but it never left me. The river followed me to Kent Finlay’s Cheatham Street Warehouse, a creaky little honky tonk in San Marcos, Texas, where my songs about the Mississippi River made me somewhat of an anomaly among Texas songwriters. In early 2020 when Covid imposed isolation and shut down the music venues, I decided at last to delve deeper into the world of my shantyboat ancestors on the waterways. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time. I had written many songs with a swampy blues feel to tell lost river stories, but now with my songwriter’s hat on a shelf indefinitely due to Covid, I put on my historian’s hat again and went to work. As the focal point of my new research project, the St. Louis levee offered a panoramic window into the world of the river poor in the Mississippi Valley at a time when the city transformed from a steamboat town into an industrial city. So, what began as an attempt to better understand my family’s river heritage became a book that contributes to our understanding of the cultural history of the Mississippi River.

HalleyAnna Finlay updating Cheatham St. Warehouse marquee, ca. 2016

What was it like to live a migratory life on the Mississippi? I believe Shantyboats and Roustabouts will help to provide answers, but I especially appreciate the way Clarence Jones answered the question in 1900. A young St. Louis trader who took up life on a Mississippi River houseboat after his sweetheart jilted him, he offered this observation to John Lathrop Mathews, a Chicago reporter and waterways writer: “I have been on the river three years. The first year you don’t like it very well, but you think it’s easy. The second year you have your doubts about how much the river could do to you if it tried. The third year you’re in love with it but you ain’t got no doubt you’re afraid of the river every minute, sleepin’ or wakin’.”

One response to “What the Mississippi River Means to Me”

  1. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: