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BORN BY THE RIVER

Use the Mississippi as your guide as you set off on a road trip close to its banks in search of the music and literature that shaped America
Sun Studio in Memphis where Sam Phillips recorded an A to Z of R’n’B

THERE ISN'T A SOUL ALIVE who knows the Mississippi River better than Captain Clarke 'Doc' Hawley. Now retired, the 82-year-old once Hi had a pilot's licence that extended over 1,300 miles of the river and its tributaries. In order to be granted this licence, he was required to draw that entire distance by hand, from memory, five miles to a page. As Mark Twain, a former riverboat pilot himself, wrote in his memoir Life on the Mississippi: 'In order to be a pilot a man had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know.'

'Not only do you draw the shape of the river, the sandbars and the bridges, but you draw what's under the river as well,' explains Captain Hawley, standing on the bridge of the Steamboat Natchez. We're docked at the Toulouse Street Wharf in New Orleans, and outside the window cargo barges laden with grain pass silently along the Mississippi. 'That's more important than anything, because you need to know where not to drop anchor or you could hook into an oil line. After I drew from Cincinnati, Ohio, down to here I thought I could go to work drawing maps at Rand McNally [a publishing company] forever.'

Needless to say, Captain Hawley did not become a cartographer for a living. Instead, he spent 60 years expertly guiding steamboats up and down the mighty river, which has its source at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and flows south for 2,320 miles before it finds the ocean in the Gulf of Mexico. It remains to this day an avenue of commerce, carrying 60% of US grain shipments, 22% of oil and gas shipments and 20% of coal shipments. Even more important than its practical use has been its cultural impact on America. Its banks were home to the mound-building native Mississippians long before Hernando de Soto became the first European to set eyes on the river in 1541. During the 20th century, blues, jazz, gospel, R'n'B, soul and rock'n'roll were all born within splashing distance of the Mississippi. There must be something in the water.

From his vantage point on board, Captain Hawley had a unique view of how the culture that grew by the Mississippi shaped America. 'Jazz went up the river by boat first,' he says. 'Louis Armstrong's first job was on a riverboat. I can guarantee that the first jazz heard in St Paul, Minnesota, was on a boat with a New Orleans band. I remember I was on the boats when rock came in. It was electric! It was a new rhythm that took over America.'

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