Sunday, October 5, 2003

Music flows along nation's big rivers



By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"If you wanna taste the water, gotta come to the river,"

The Jayhawks

("Come to the River")

Question: What do New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and Cincinnati have in common?

Answer: Great music and great rivers.

It's no coincidence. Rivers were the original information superhighways, and along with the latest news and material goods, steamboats carried music, spreading fiddle tunes, blues, jazz and the other styles represented at the Tall Stacks Music, Arts and Heritage Festival Oct. 15-19 on the Cincinnati and Newport riverfronts.

PICK YOUR FAVORITE RIVER SONG
"The river has always been an important way of disseminating music and blending musical styles, because of the great diversity of all the people, the passengers and the crew," says former Cincinnatian Ben Sandmel, a folklorist/writer/producer/musician who plays drums with Tall Stacks headliner the Hackberry Ramblers.

"The river was the big means of communication up through at least the 1880s, when the railroads started to take over," Sandmel adds. "The boats used music as a way to attract people. That's why the gangplank on a steamboat is called the stage, because when they would come into town they would lower the gangplank and people would be performing on it."

The Ohio River is what made Cincinnati the Queen City of the West - a 19th-century center of commerce - which back then meant riverboats. It attracted musicians such as composer Stephen Foster and journalists such as Lafcadio Hearn, who documented the music scene down by the river in the last quarter of the 19th century.

The attraction of Ohio as a free state drew escaped slaves and other free African-Americans. As the northern and western edge of the slave states, the Ohio River earned the nickname the River Jordan, used by slaves as a code word in their spirituals. Many of those newly free Cincinnatians found work and homes by the Ohio shore.

"It created a large African-American community, much of which was located around the riverfront in the area between the river and Third Street, because of the work that was available there," says Cincinnati native Steve Tracy, professor of African-American Studies at Amherst College and author of the local blues history Going to Cincinnati. "A lot of African-American music was performed there and that's really where the Cincinnati blues came from."

Cincinnati's modern image as a straight-laced, conservative city is a world away from its rivertown roots. Both sides of the Ohio had well-earned reputations for wildness, with gambling dens, brothels and saloons serving the riverboat crews who poured in every day.

Blues singer/guitarist/harmonica player John Hammond, a Tall Stacks headliner, says the river influence on American popular music lasted long after the end of the steamboat era.

"Most of the train tracks in the U.S. went along the side of the rivers, and then the highways were built by the train tracks," Hammond says. "So it all boils down to the river, which was the first means of commerce and travel."

After its dominance as a steamboat capital ended, Cincinnati became a broadcast center, and the music kept coming. Many of the staff musicians on local radio stations in the 1930s and 1940s also found work in the booming casinos of Northern Kentucky, another river byproduct.

The region is far from the Kentucky capital of Frankfort, locked off in hilly country accessible only by road. Kentucky authorities pretty much ignored it. Ohioans had only to cross a bridge, so as Cincinnati and its conservative image grew, its rowdy rivertown spirit moved across the river to Newport and Covington.

"Until (Attorney General) Bobby Kennedy cleaned it up (in the 1960s), look at all the people who played in Newport, (bluesmen) Charles Brown, Cecil Gant; Lonnie Johnson played the 33 Club," says Sandmel.

The magic and inspiration of rivers isn't lost on today's rock musicians. Tall Stacks headliner the Jayhawks' song, "Come to the River" on their new CD, Rainy Day Music, has the chorus, "If you wanna taste the water, gotta come to the river."

Lots of people want a taste. The attraction of rivertowns as America's port cities is still there.

"The rivers represent a kind of freedom and mobility," says Tracy. "The music was being moved on the river to other places, creating a kind of cross pollination."

All that freedom and mobility was a perfect musical catalyst, says one modern Cincinnati music maker.

"People were passing through and music was the great communicator," says Greg Dulli, former leader of Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs, who lives in Los Angeles.

"If somebody gets off a boat and goes in to have a drink and starts playing guitar, you're going to draw a crowd. And they're gonna bring their instruments, too, and everybody starts talking in the music and everybody starts dancing around.

"You're getting off the boat and you're getting on dry land and it's 'Let's throw it on down.' And then you can leave. It's like that slogan Vegas is using, 'What happens here, stays here.'"

The music stayed, creating the traditions of blues, jazz, bluegrass and other homegrown Cincinnati sounds. Oct. 15-19, that music rings out again on both sides of the Ohio, as Tall Stacks celebrates Cincinnati's rowdy, musical rivertown heritage and the vital role it played - and continues to play - in American music.

E-mail lnager@enquirer.com

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