That lilting Creedence Clearwater tune, “Proud Mary,” echoed in my head as I cruised down the Mississippi River from Memphis to New Orleans earlier this month aboard the newly refurbished American Queen, an old-fashioned steamboat featuring two tall smokestacks, a big red paddle wheel and an all-American crew including an onboard “Riverlorian.”
It was a leisurely way to visit a part of the country I knew very little about before I arrived in Memphis, Tenn. I learned a lot about the Civil War (still referred to as “The War of Northern Aggression” in some parts of the South), sampled some delicious Southern cuisine and heard some toe-tappin’ music along the way. In fact, I ate way too much good food — including mouth-watering barbecue, scrumptious soul food and huge po’ boy sandwiches — and paid for it by packing on a few extra pounds. But it was a small price to pay for a memorable experience.
In Memphis, we revisited the birth of the blues on Beale Street and the early roots of rock ‘n’ roll at legendary Sun Studios and STAX Records. And of course we visited Elvis Presley’s fabulous mansion, Graceland, which he built for his Mommy and Daddy when he was only 22. We also visited the nearby Shiloh Civil War battlefield, where nearly 3,500 young Americans died, a sad chapter in U.S. history.
Here’s the rest of our itinerary: Helena, Ark.; Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss., and St. Francisville, Baton Rouge, Houmas House Plantation, and New Orleans, La. The steamship company provided hop-on, hop-off buses at each port call so that we could visit selected local attractions. We saw beautiful Southern mansions and lush gardens in Natchez and Vicksburg and examined the late Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s controversial heritage in Baton Rouge, the state capital. The aptly named “Kingfish” built himself a 28-story capitol building — tallest in the U.S. — and a replica of the White House, which he hoped to occupy later in his foreshortened (he was assassinated) but very colorful political career.
New Orleans was another highlight and we had an unforgettable experience by attending a gospel brunch at the famous House of Blues. In the musical vernacular, the joint was jumpin’. We docked in New Orleans in a driving rainstorm and were looking for a place to stay dry. Well, the House of Blues was much more than that; it was a window into traditional Southern gospel music. We enjoyed a bountiful brunch at the club, and were on our feet by the time the concert ended with a rollicking version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
We drove by the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and realized how much progress we’ve made in race relations since 1968. We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went, at upscale hotels and soul food joints alike. Make no mistake about it, Southern hospitality is a reality and we savored every minute of it. All of this goodwill between the races makes me resent even more those who continue to fan the flames of racial hatred.
All in all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Kudos to the American Queen Steamship Co. for reviving a great American tradition — riverboat cruising.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.