I was 15 years old when my father, a guitar-playing rounder who performed in levee honkytonks and elsewhere during the Great Depression and beyond, died of occupational lung disease at age 48 in 1965. He followed in the footsteps of his banjo-playing father, who was 49 in 1937 when he, too, died of occupational lung disease after running a coal shovel in the Ilasco quarries of the Atlas Portland Cement Company for nearly 15 years. The year before Daddy became too sick to run a hammer drill and bust up limestone rock with a sledgehammer and a team of blasters in the same quarries, he taught me to play a Jimmy Rodgers song, “Waiting for a Train,” and “In the Garden,” a gospel song by C. Austin Miles. Soon I took guitar lessons from Maceo Wilson, a multi-instrumentalist jazz/swing musician from Hannibal.
In graduate school, I began to write songs, including political protests, but not until 2000 did I embrace songwriting as a way of life after attending Kent Finlay’s weekly Songwriters Circle at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. Kent, a teacher and admirer of Mark Twain who gave George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band their start at his humble honkytonk along the railroad tracks on October 13, 1975, nurtured the musical Mississippi River stories that flowed from my childhood experiences in Monkey Run. He helped me to unlock a pirate’s treasure chest of songwriting tales, images, characters, and the deepest of personal scars. The chest contained lost river stories to be unpacked and coaxed out in song. Thanks in part to Kent’s mentoring, my songs (and more recently, my childhood memoir) brought to life hard-edged as well as whimsical stories and earthy characters from the riverbank two miles south of Mark Twain Cave. The songs are both tragic and triumphant at times but always enduringly human. In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down LIVE performances with my band, Doctor G and the Mudcats, but we return to the stage at Middleton Brewing in San Marcos on May 7, 2022. For a sample of my songs, click on the Youtube link and audio player below.
My music and historical research often engage each other in a storytelling dialectic. On this site, I will share some of my own songs and other music from and about the Mississippi River, its history, and the people who made the music. In particular, I will highlight the creative musical fountain that bubbled up from the sand, silt, and cobblestones on the levees in the vast river basin. The Mississippi may well have been “the highway of the poor,” as a travel writer observed more than a century ago aboard a steamboat, but the river sure blessed us with a rich musical heritage.
“The river is the highway of the poor.”W.A. Curtis, “On the Upper Mississippi,” Magazine of History 20 (January 1915): 28.
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