Listening to the 18-minute musical monologue has been a Thanksgiving tradition among folk music fans for decades.
“This is a song about the Julia Belle Swain.” So begins one of my favorite tunes by the late great John Hartford.
The Julia Belle Swain was a modern-day steamboat that used to cruise the Mississippi River. Built in 1971 in Dubuque, Iowa, the boat had an open air pilothouse with a huge antique teakwood pilot wheel.I was in love with her. When she was docked in Peoria, Illinois, where my girlfriend lived, I used to visit both of them. The girlfriend thing was a little rocky. She didn’t think I was ambitious enough. She was probably right. I was plenty happy just hanging out down by the Illinois river with Julia.
I never saw John Hartford down there but he loved her too. Julia Belle I mean. John was a river rat and in fact he was a riverboat pilot. You can see him handling that huge pilotwheel in one of his old videos.
John Hartford wrote hymns to the Mississippi River. And so did a young man who started his life with the name Samuel Clemens. Young Sam grew up on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri. He arrived when he was four years old and lived there until he was 17 and that period of his life fills the pages of his most famous books “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The experience in Hannibal also stoked Sam’s desire to be a steamboat pilot, which he eventually became. He even took his pen name Mark Twain from the term boatmen use to signify water depth at two fathoms, deep enough for safe travel.
This summer, water depth is a problem on the Mississippi River because of the drought, but folks in Hannibal want you to know, they are still open for business if you’re a Mark Twain fan.
Cindy Lovell is the executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal.
I had a nice conversation with Cindy the other day about Twain, his life on the river and his days as a riverboat pilot.
“When I speak to school children today, I always tell them being a riverboat pilot, a steamboat man in those days, was just like being a shuttle astronaut,” she said. “You had to be licensed by Congress to be a steamboat pilot. It was a very big deal and there wasn’t a boy in any river town that didn’t want to grow up to be a riverboat pilot.”
You can see the Mississippi River from Mark Twain’s boyhood bedroom in Hannibal. It’s a pretty good view. You can just imagine him waking up on a summer morning, running out the door to play with Huck and Becky. You can also imagine him as an old man smoking a cigar sitting in a rocking chair tapping his foot to the songs of John Hartford, like his ode to Julia Belle Swain:
“Well I sure do love the Tennessee River, the Ohio and the Illinois and I love the old Mississippi River, it’s a good old place for a boy. Just to step on board a steamboat and ride all the way to the sea, where else but a muddy old river would a person want to be.”
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