Big River Customs: Mississippian Folklife

A sternwheel riverboat gliding down the Mississippi River is among the stereotypes of Louisiana that are most frequently used. Since the 1930s, these ships have not been a practical means of trade and transportation; they now only serve the tourism sector. However, even in those somewhat fictitious circumstances, they maintain a vast body of tradition. Additionally, the river is a source of various folklore, professional jargon, and oral histories in addition to steamboats. Commercial fishing, the barge business, and seasonal activities like levee bonfires are some further examples.

Although each facet of river life has unique traditions, there is a great deal of commonality between them in terms of minute details and general camaraderie. Ted Ewing, a former towboat deck hand and pilot serving as the port captain for American Commercial Barge Line in Harahan, Jefferson Parish, claims that “river people are like a huge family.” Ewing says, “If you mess with one river man, you’ve messed with all of them.”

Since most riverboat crew members are compelled to spend a minimum of thirty days together, loyalty is crucial on the water. Some people might work for ninety days straight or even longer. Additionally, as Captain Ewing describes, the situation may be quite aggravated: “I boarded a yacht in the early 1960s with a seasoned captain named Bill Keith. The elderly man didn’t have much money. A four-person team helped us run. Me, him, an engineer, and the cook—who turned out to be one of Mr. Keith’s girlfriends—were the only crew members. He couldn’t afford lights or radar, so we only ran during the day. We spent the night tied to trees, and the following morning when we left he knew exactly which tree he would tie up to that night. He could pretty much name every limb.”

Ewing says, “Captain Keith bought hardly any groceries. “The locations where we tied up were frequently close to a family’s home with a sizable garden; with their OK, we would take part of their produce. We would go fishing at night. He would send me up the hill in the morning. Even flat land is considered to be “up on the hill” by rivermen. I would go up on the bank with his rifle and shoot squirrels there. While we were traveling up the river, he would also order me to lie down on the head of the boat while holding a shotgun. When the ducks floated downstream after being shot by me, the engineer would be waiting by the stern of the boat with a catch-net. That’s how we made it through; for me, one journey was sufficient.”

In river slang, it is believed that crew members who become agitated under such circumstances “have the red ass.” By conducting “fleet work” on “harbor-,” “shift-,” or “dinner-bucket” boats, where the crew returns home at night, one can avoid this demanding type of schedule. Barges are transported from one local terminal to another or brought out to boats that travel vast distances as part of this task. Tripping is the phrase for this type of long-distance operation between ports. With the rise of the psychedelic drug culture in the late 1960s, “tripping” acquired a different meaning, yet it is still used in its original context on the river.

As opposed to what one might anticipate, the word “fleet” refers to groupings of barges connected by steel cables known as “wires.” The barges are generally referred to as “the tow” when pushed by a boat; hence, “towboat.” This description may be inaccurate because such ships move their cargo rather than tow or draw it from behind. A tugboat may also push tows; however, unlike a towboat, push the boat with a square bow that can face up flush against the tow. A tugboat has a pointed bow.

The St. James Parish’s Christmas Eve levee bonfires have been one of south Louisiana’s most distinctive holiday customs for over a century. The various hypotheses put forth to explain the fires’ cause exhibit the folklore process in action. One school of thinking refers to the amusing goal of illuminating Papa Noel’s path. It is also suggested that marking the way to Christmas Eve mass during a time of year when fog is familiar is more practical. Barry Ancelet, a folklorist from Louisiana, explains why such notions are “fabricated after the fact. The bonfires’ purpose is more likely to be solely joyous. The custom has its roots in pre-Christian Europe when the Celts celebrated the winter solstice by lighting bonfires to wish the sun a long life till spring.”

The campfire custom has been increasingly well-liked in recent years. Thousands of individuals now attend the miles-long Christmas Eve celebrations on the Gramercy levee. Most fires are constructed in tall, conical shapes, while some also feature images of plantation mansions, aircraft, or other contemporary pop culture artifacts. After months of laborious preparation, the fires are lit, illuminating the surroundings and igniting wild festivities. Observing the bonfires from the water is now a popular excursion offered by steamboats located in New Orleans, which is an excellent example of how one folkloric custom can inspire another. Steamboats had probably not made a port call at Gramercy since World War II before this recent change.

The nomadic lifestyle of individuals who live on shanty boats, waterfront work songs, lead-line calling (the source of the term “mark twain”), and other occupations are all included in river lore. Although some of the most idealized aspects of river life in Louisiana have been lost, it is still a rich source of the legend.