Press release from
Two-Hour Film By Award-Winning
Filmmaker Roger Weisberg -- Produced In High Definition Television
(HDTV) And Presented By Thirteen/WNET New York -- Premiered December
17, 2002 On PBS
River flows right down the middle of the country. Maybe along this
great liquid divide, I can discover what holds this wildly diverse
country together." -- Roy Blount,
The beloved humorist and celebrated
author Roy Blount, Jr. takes an offbeat journey down the Mississippi
River, the literal and metaphorical "main stream" of America,
in a new documentary from Thirteen/WNET New York. Blount's unpredictable
odyssey, captured in rich, often amusing detail by the cameras, celebrates
a broad range of American eccentricity, from an off-the-rack wedding
at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to a "guts-and-glory"
rodeo at the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.
Produced and directed by the
award-winning documentarian Roger Weisberg, and shot and mastered
on high definition video, THE MAIN STREAM premieres Tuesday, December
17 at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). In the spirit of
Weisberg's earlier work, ROAD SCHOLAR, which has become a cult classic,
THE MAIN STREAM is an entertaining potpourri of American life, adding
a welcome touch of humor and irreverence to a wide variety of subjects,
from history and geography to sociology and cultural anthropology.
"The 20 public affairs
documentaries I've made for PBS leave little room for levity,"
Weisberg said. "But, every once in a while, I need a good laugh
and I think our audience deserves one as well. Ever since I made ROAD
SCHOLAR about a decade ago, I've been eager to take another offbeat
documentary journey in search of the ironies of contemporary American
life. I can't imagine a more quintessential American journey than
a trip down Mark Twain's river or a host more affable and amusing
than Roy Blount Jr."
Like Mark Twain, Blount is a
displaced Southerner with the wit and wisdom to capture contemporary
life on the great river Twain immortalized over a century ago. While
floating downstream on an assortment of vessels -- including a canoe,
rowboat, raft, steamboat, towboat, and fishing boat -- Blount introduces
an unforgettable cast of characters.
Blount throws himself into unusual
Mississippi River events such as National Tom Sawyer Days, which LIFE
magazine called "an orgy of wholesomeness;" the King Biscuit
Blues Festival; the Cleveland, Mississippi Annual Barbecue Contest;
and the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.
Viewers meet such memorable
characters as writer and public radio personality Garrison Keillor,
who challenges Blount to a stone-skipping contest; Winona LaDuke,
an Ojibwe activist who twice ran for Vice President of the United
States; Kenny Salway, a reclusive environmentalist who spent 28 years
living alone in the swamp; Leonard Kuhnert, a fisherman who catches
giant catfish with his bare hands; Leslie Eaton, a hippie nomad who
makes a living reading palms; and Wilbert Rideau, an award-winning
newspaper editor serving a life sentence for murder.
Many of the communities and
individuals featured in the film are struggling with beliefs and lifestyles
that fall outside of mainstream culture. There are Native Americans
battling to reclaim tribal lands and traditions, African Americans
working with Greenpeace to fight environmental racism, and homesteaders
contending for the right to live in old boathouses. Many have distinctly
non-mainstream professions as well, including a Mark Twain impersonator,
a Voodoo Priestess, a Native-American spiritual healer who manages
a casino, a French chef who touts swamp rats as a gourmet delicacy,
a musician who teaches the blues to children in the Delta, an Elvis
impersonator who curates the "Elvis is Alive Museum," and
a trumpet player who is being heralded as the next Louis Armstrong.
As one self-proclaimed river
rat remarks, "the Mississippi River needs the backwaters."
Blount comes to realize that the unconventional and embattled characters
and communities he encounters in America's backwaters are critical
to the vitality of the mainstream. Ultimately, the film celebrates
diversity, eccentricity, and freedom of expression, as Blount concludes
that America is not nearly as homogeneous as he feared.
THE MAIN STREAM is a production
of Public Policy Productions, Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET
New York. Over the past two decades, Thirteen has presented 20 PBS
documentaries by Roger Weisberg on subjects ranging from health care,
aging, and the environment to defense policy, child welfare, adolescent
sexuality, and criminal justice. These documentaries have won more
than 70 awards, including Peabody, Emmy, and duPont-Columbia Awards,
and recently, an Academy Award nomination.
Funding for THE MAIN STREAM
is provided by PBS, the Silverweed Foundation, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation,
the Herman Goldman Foundation, and the Charlpeg Foundation.
LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI WITH ROY BLOUNT,
For author and humorist Roy Blount,
Jr., life on the Mississippi is a reflection of American culture,
warts and all. On a more personal note, it was an adventure he won't
soon forget. Blount recently traveled the length of the Mississippi
River for a new documentary by Roger Weisberg, produced by Public
Policy Productions, Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York.
THE MAIN STREAM -- chronicling the literal and metaphorical "main
stream" of America -- premiered Tuesday, December 17 2002 on
PBS. In the following article, Blount recalls that memorable journey:
As the host of THE
MAIN STREAM, I started out where I live, in New York City, which is
highly unrepresentative of America and yet is home to the mainstream
media. The end of what has been called the American Century was at
hand; I was myself a bit more than half a century old; and I felt
like I still hadn't come to grips with the U.S. of A.
Since I was a teenager I had been holding
forth about American food and music and politics and heroes, in newspapers,
magazines, and books, on radio and television, at universities and
conventions. I had driven across the country; visited forty-eight
of the fifty states; played baseball in Yankee Stadium; reported on
the Civil Rights Movement; spent a year with the Pittsburgh Steelers;
interviewed Ray Charles and Martin Luther King and Billy Carter and
Loretta Lynn and Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson; watched Ku Klux Klansmen
burn a cross; mocked real Presidents and created a fictional one;
served in the U.S. Army; gotten a degree from Harvard; sung (badly)
on stage with Bruce Springsteen and Steven King and Dave Barry; sired
two vigorously American children; dated a TV star; been married to
a Texan and a Massachusettsean; swapped quips with Johnny Carson;
and written the screenplay of a movie in which Bill Murray takes an
elephant from Missouri to California. I still felt that there was
a lot I had to learn about America.
After brushing up on Huckelberry Finn
and studying a map of the nation's heartland, I took off through a
pouring rain and a sea of vehicles and pedestrians toward the literal
main stream of America, the Mississippi River, which cuts right through
the heart of the country from top to bottom. I rode in a towboat,
a Coast Guard cutter, an oyster-fishing boat, a racing dragonboat,
two paddlewheel steamboats, a coffin custom-built to resemble a paddle
wheeler, six different canoes (one of them down the first three miles
of the river, from Lake Itasca, with a man who was determined to paddle
all the way to the Gulf), a big rubberized Zodiac, an air boat, a
couple of recreational motorboats, several flat bottom boats involved
variously in commercial fishing and river cleanup, and a competitive
I caught catfish by feeling around in
muddy water and making them bite down on my hand (this is called in
different regions "hogging," "noodling," or "grabbling");
I caught another catfish weighing 27 pounds on a hook and line within
sight of the Memphis skyline; I gathered wild rice in the traditional
way with Ojibways; I patrolled "Cancer Alley" with Greenpeace;
I fired live ammunition from pistols and a shotgun at simulated gunmen
while wearing an absurd-looking (at least on me) if historically accurate
cowboy outfit; I sort-of wrestled a baby alligator; I hauled a nutria
(like a beaver only with a rat tail instead of a flat tail) up out
of its habitat (which it was busy destroying) by the tail and tried
to reason with it as it tried to bite my leg; I ate another nutria
prepared by a French chef; I ate live oysters whacked open with a
hammer right out of the net; and I interviewed a man (who sang me
gospel songs he had written and confided that he helped overthrow
Batista as a covert-ops Marine) over a rigged-up intercom while he
sat in pitch darkness 50 feet underwater gathering mussel shells for
export to Japan and breathing through a helmet he made out of a 250-pound
I interviewed old hippies who were waging
a legal battle to keep on living in converted boathouses, a fourth-generation
commercial fisherman whose way of life the authorities were trying
to end, a veterinarian-balloonist who once pulled the incisors out
of his pet lion to make it turn loose a pig (then he performed surgery
to save the pig's life, and later he ate the pig) and a variety of
proudly self-proclaimed "river rats" making a variety of
livings on the river (one of them used to have a pet eagle "who
finally left me for a woman" and still raises cats produced by
the union of his tabby and a lynx).
I argued with Garrison Keillor about
which of us was skipping stones right on the river; I sat on the riverbank
next to Kermit Ruffins while he talked about Louis Armstrong and played
"Down by the Riverside" on his horn; I talked to John Barry
(author of rising tide) about the role of the Army Corps of Engineers
while we watched Corps workers lay huge concrete mats along the banks
of the river; and I got the Rev. Fred Kyles reminiscing about the
assassination of Martin Luther King as we looked at the Lorraine Motel
balcony where the two of them were standing when the shooting occurred.
I threw out the first pitch of a minor-league
ball game in Illinois, played catch with the proprietor of the Field
of Dreams (as opposed to the neighboring proprietor of the Left and
Center Field of Dreams) ballpark in Iowa, and bowled (in the Bowling
Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Louis) with the second greatest bowler
of all time. I caught three-legged frogs with environmentally concerned
schoolchildren in Minnesota; I conducted a musical interview with
nine-year-old twins and teenage sisters who are learning to play the
blues in Clarkesville, Mississippi; I grilled candidates vying to
be the annual incarnations of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in Hannibal,
Missouri; I judged a barbecue contest in Cleveland, Mississippi; and
I participated in rituals with two voodoo priestesses in Louisiana,
one of whom danced with an enormous python and the other of whom conjured
up -- fortuitously -- the only eagle we saw close up. And those are
just the things I did that occur to me off the top of my head. I saw
the river in Minnesota where it was so narrow that I could walk quickly
across it on rocks; I saw where it was so strong and wide that it
tipped a foot lower on the inside edge as it banked around a bend
in New Orleans; and I saw it empty out into the Gulf of Mexico.
I started out not knowing what I was
looking for, which may be the best way to learn things, along the
river. I learned that if you cover a crab's eyes with your fingers,
he'll stop trying to pinch you. I learned that a nutria will rear
up and bare its orange teeth when it feels threatened. I learned that
when you stick your hand in a catfish's mouth the catfish will always
spin clockwise. I learned that a pig will eat coal.
Along the way I asked people -- conservatively,
I would say about l50 people -- what the Mississippi meant to them,
and how the river had changed, and whether it would ever be tamed.
I learned a great deal about bygone, fading, and flourishing ways
of life -- human, floral, and faunal.
I asked people what they thought the
expression "mainstream" meant, as in "mainstream America,"
"mainstream values." A banker said the mainstream was people
with good credit. Someone even older than I am said it was senior
citizens. A machinist said it was the everyday working Joe. Some people
pointedly expressed a desire to stay out of the mainstream. For instance,
a third generation cotton farmer in Mississippi turned his nose up
at mainstream country music and said the best country music was in
the honky tonks. He pointed to the rows of cotton we were harvesting
and said, "This is my honky-tonk."
Several people didn't know what I was
talking about. Those people were probably the most mainstream of all.
Wilbert Rideau, who is serving life without parole at Angola State
Prison, told me that you don't know what freedom is until you lose
it. Maybe you don't know what the mainstream is until you are out
of it. Elvis, coming from outside the mainstream, created a whole
new mainstream, and then couldn't live in it. According to the graffiti
on the wall outside his mansion, just about everybody in the world
loves Elvis. That may be the mainstream right there: love of Elvis.
But it didn't do Elvis any good -- the mainstream swallowed him up.
However much you influence the mainstream,
you can't control it, and that goes for the river. But once you start
trying to control the river, you can't stop, because communities and
industries have been established on the assumption that the river
will stay under control. If you let the river be the river, it will
seek its own level and leave families and institutions high and dry
or underwater. That's freedom for you. People build upon freedom,
harness it, hem it in with locks and dams, try to make it a mainstream
thing; but it is forever likely to break free, cut a new course, reassert
itself as the disrespecter of persons and property that it is. Some
people, when I asked them what "mainstream" meant to them,
said, simply, "Freedom" -- a premise that will always be
shaky, and always exciting.
The river, John Berry said, is "perfect,"
as opposed to the imperfect people who try to make it behave. There
is something chilling about that notion, because -- it's a little
like the Indian horse that the "swamp blues" musician Coco
Robicheaux told me about, which kept walking into a post, over and
over. "What are you doing, trying to sell a blind horse?"
somebody said. "He ain't blind," said the man who was trying
to sell him. "He just don't care."
The river is perfect because it doesn't
care. In making its way across human territory, it would just as soon
drown me as a nutria. But people, being imperfect, want to believe
that it cares. People call the Mississippi "Old Man River,"
"The Father of Waters."
A reclusive backwoodsman named Kenny
Salwey, who traps and fishes and lives along the river, took me out
into the backwaters, which cleanse and renew the river, preserve its
variety, and pump life into it. "You can't have the mainstream
without the backwaters," he said, and yet the mainstream threatens
to overwhelm the backwaters with silt and overflow and concrete. What
I want to do is spend as much time as I can in the backwaters of America,
and paddle out into the mainstream just far enough and just often
enough to inject such freshness as I can.
I have followed the Mississippi from
its source to its disappearance, and I have reached this conclusion:
the main stream is like life. It starts out little and clean, gets
progressively muddier and more channelized and commercial, and then
turns into something else altogether: a great yawning gulf. I guess
I knew that from the beginning. I just wanted to keep on learning