main stream

Press release from PBS:

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


photo: Don Young

"The Mississippi 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, Jr.

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.



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 hot-air balloon.

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 bomb.

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 it.

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