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The River: ‘Geetars and mouth harps’ were part of the river journey, and then there was also John Hartford


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Half a century ago, in the summer of 1970, just a moment in time, cell phone and instant communication devices weren’t imaginable in even the keenest of minds… thankfully. So instead of continually being on the phone with someone far removed from the decks of the DELTA QUEEN, deckhands found other ways to amuse themselves on their own time. Musical instruments were a popular source. – especially “geetars and mouth harps.” – or guitars and harmonicas. Just about every kid seeking the Mark Twain dream arrived aboard the steamboat carrying a cardboard suitcase and a cheap guitar slung across his shoulder. The wandering musicians played at various levels of harmonious abilities. With few exceptions, they were novices, but still, they could entertain themselves and their crewmates with recognizable tunes, usually of the folk song variety.

Early-of-a-morning, as they say down Cairo way, my boys and I were gathered on the bow and just finished an informal training session.

Early-of-a-morning, as they say down Cairo way, my boys and I were gathered on the bow and just finished an informal training session. I forget who it was, but one of the fellows reached for his beat-up musical instrument resting atop the oil drums beneath the protective covering of the deck above and started picking a popular tune of the times the rest of us knew. A couple of deckhands sang along with their musical brethren until a Chief Engineer suddenly emerged from the forepeak space beneath our feet, where he’d been collecting a sample from the house water tank.

“Don’t let me stop you, fellows,” he said as he gathered with us to enjoy a musical interlude from our many steamboat chores. After a few minutes watching the deckhand fumble with the chords, the veteran steamboatman asked, “Mind if I try?” A look went up among the hands, and one even nudged the side of the youngster standing next to him. A grin appeared on the face of the instrument’s owner as he stopped strumming and handed the cheap guitar toward the older man from an earlier generation. In 1970, a popular anthem among the young was, “Never trust anyone over 30.” For sure, the older gentleman was well into his second set of thirty seasons.

The engineer, dressed in clean work clothes suitable for the engineroom of the DELTA QUEEN, set his water sample on the closest drumhead and accepted the “ax” extended his way. Still, the boys gathered round grinned in disbelief as the older man lifted a foot onto the rounded lip of the capstan barrel, placed the guitar atop his leg, and started tuning the thing. When satisfied the tuning was as good as it could get; he positioned one hand on the fretboard, and with the other, began strumming.

One of the fellows reached for his beat-up musical instrument resting atop the oil drums beneath the protective covering of the deck above and started picking a popular tune. Charlie Rafferty a DELTA QUEEN deckhand of the 1970s aboard the CLYDE, 2019.

Suddenly, the ten-dollar geetar turned into a musical instrument worthy of a concert hall. The notes, flowing like a musical fountain, cascaded over the deck, and all those watching listened in amazement. Everyone, including me, was flabbergasted and dumbfounded. When the elder Chief finished the last note, he returned the reverberating instrument to its owner, thanked him for the use, recovered his water sample, and headed aft through the firebox toward the engineroom without saying another word to those still in shock standing on the bow. As such, that was my introduction to Chief Engineer Mike O’Leary.

O’Leary started on the river as a musician with the Streckful line of steam excursion boats. Eventually, he found his way into the operational end of the river and worked for many years as a Chief Engineer for the Mississippi Valley Barge Lines. It wasn’t long before my visits to the DELTA QUEEN’s engine room increased. There Chief Mike taught me how to “field strip” the guts of the QUEEN’s two Carlisle & Finch carbon-arc searchlights. From him, I learned that the white paint inside the housing of the lights caused the light beam to “bounce around,” as Mike explained. Instead, he ordered a gallon of “camera black” non-reflecting paint I used to recoat the units.

Chief Engineer Mike O’Leary started on the river as a musician with the Streckful line of steam excursion boats.

Soon, the mechanisms of the searchlights operated without a glitch on freezing, blustery nights when the pilots needed them the most. The fellows on-deck seemed to gain a new respect for their elders, especially when the Chief was out on the bow sampling the quality of the water supply. “Hey, Chief, play something,” was often heard as an ever-present cheap guitar found its way to the musical steamboatman.

Within a few days after the Chief Engineer became an admired figure with the deck crew, another musician came aboard who was at the top of his popularity in the Bluegrass – Country musical field. It was none other than the versatile John Hartford, whose song, “Gentle on My Mind,” became a national sensation, especially after Glenn Campbell recorded the tune a few years earlier. John was on the DELTA QUEEN with a camera crew recording “Gentle” for a special television show Glenn Ford was putting on the air later that season.

John and I became instant friends when we met earlier in the year when he was on the QUEEN. Hartford was no stranger to a steamboat. He grew up in St. Louis and became devoted to the Mississippi River after his fourth-grade teacher, Miss Ruth Ferris, stirred his yearnings toward steamboats and the waters flowing past their hometown. John worked on both the Steamers GORDON C. GREENE and the DELTA QUEEN before music became his fulltime passion and occupation. Though he was not to become a steamboat pilot as he once dreamed, his love for the riverboats never waned. John Hartford was as much at home aboard the DELTA QUEEN as anyone working full-time on the crew.

From him, I learned that the white paint inside the housing of the lights caused the light beam to “bounce around,” as Mike explained.

Once things settled a bit and the “film was in the can,” as I heard one of the cameramen mention, I said to John, “Boy, do I have someone I’d like you to meet. There’s a chief engineer on here who’s a master musician and once played in the band for Streckfus.” It was no time before I introduced the two, and soon, John Hartford was spending nearly as much time in the engineroom as he usually lingered in the pilothouse.

It happened that Chief O’Leary did not come alone aboard the DELTA QUEEN. As an added inducement to get him aboard, the Chief Engineer brought along his wife and teenage daughter as guest passengers. John Hartford likely ate dinner with the Chief and his family a time or two. And as Hartford was a celebrity heartthrob for the younger female set, the daughter immediately took a liking to the famed musician-boatman. Like many youngsters of her generation, she thought by depicting her elder father as “old-fashioned,” she could make inroads into the endearment of her musical luminary.
Her reproach for her father failed, however, to impress John Hartford, who was more interested in the old-time steamboatman and what he knew of the boats than he was of kindling a romantic relationship with a star-struck girl. As a consequence of the experience, Hartford wrote a song as a “put-down,” as he told me, towards the young woman for the way she attempted to misuse her father to gain the musician’s approval.   

Who but John Hartford can tell the tale the best?
 

It was none other than the versatile John Hartford, whose song, “Gentle on My Mind,” became a national sensation, (Photo Ann Zieger Collection)

Let Him Go On Mamma
© By John Hartford

Well he likes black coffee, fried eggs
And a well done T-bone steak
He like a red dress and pearly white teeth
And the flash of a pretty brown leg
He said back in the ’30s, you know
You never had it made
He’s an engineer over on the Ohio river
Runnin’ in the Pittsburgh trade

With the inspection office in Louisville
At a desk for a very short time
And he played in a band on two different boats
Working for the Strackfus line
And long ago he smoked reefer
And he even made homebrew
And the reefer come in through New Orleans
Back before World War II

John and I became instant friends when we met earlier in the year when he was on the QUEEN. (Photo by Bela Berty.)


[Chorus]
He’s just a feller worked on the river
All his life by a paddle wheel
You say he’s old fashioned
Well that ain’t no big deal
Well it’s too thick to navigate
And it’s too thin to plow
So let him go on mama
And don’t put him down for it now

Well he sits there an’ smokes an old I-bolt cigar
Says he doesn’t miss it at all
But he still goes out and he makes a few trips
In the summer and then in the fall
Oh, the railroad trains, the bus and planes
Been takin’ up all the slack
He’s been watching all those river towns
Slowly turn their backs

[Chorus]
He’s just a feller worked on the river
All his life by a paddle wheel
You say he’s old fashioned
Well that ain’t no big deal
Well it’s too thick to navigate
And it’s too thin to plow
So let him go on mama
And don’t put him down for it now

John worked on both the Steamers GORDON C. GREENE and the DELTA QUEEN before music became his fulltime passion and occupation. (Original artistry by Matthew Cooper, 2019)

Well he comes from a real old-time way of life
He had to fight to just learn how
And he might even have voted for Nixon once
But I’m sure he sees that now
Well Friday night he makes the best damn
Gumbo you’d ever want to eat
And Saturday morning ‘fore everyone’s up
He’s gone off down to the fleet

[Chorus]
He’s just a feller worked on the river
All his life by a paddle wheel
You say he’s old fashioned
Well that ain’t no big deal
Well it’s too thick to navigate
And it’s too thin to plow
So let him go on mama
And don’t put him down for it now

Thanks to Captain Michael and Vera Coyle of St. Louis.


You’re as pretty as he is ugly
And he’s the happiest man alive
You’ve got him into believing
That old men are back in style
Now you see these Oysters Bienville
And this baked potato skin
I eat ’em so I can grow up an’ be
An old man just like him

[Chorus]
He’s just a feller worked on the river
All his life by a paddle wheel
You say he’s old fashioned
Well that ain’t no big deal
Well it’s too thick to navigate
And it’s too thin to plow
So let him go on mama
And don’t put him down for it now…

And that’s how and why John Hartford’s “Let Him Go On Mama” came to be written.

Thanks to Captain Michael and Vera Coyle of St. Louis for suggesting the theme for this week’s column.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.


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5 Comments

  1. Ronald Sutton, a former C/E says:

    Fascinating. First I’ve heard of an Engineer coming out of a tank, tuning a gee-tar and playing well. All kinds of talent.

    • Béla K. Berty says:

      Thank you for using my photo of Captain John Hartford and of you. Do you remember the band that performed before John got up to dance and sing and play? What year was that concert at the Charleston (WV) Civic Center?

  2. Connie Bays says:

    I always enjoy reading your stories. I look forward to a new installment every Sunday!

  3. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    WOW!!! Loved this one! Keep them coming!

  4. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Oh My, I’d never heard “the rest of the story”. I loved that song before now I truly love it more.Thanks Capt Don for another fascinating look into the lives of folks I’ve known & admired.
    Do you know how he came to write Where Do Old time Rivermen Go? He once said he wanted to read my dad’s letters but we never got to it. I can’t wait for your next installment

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