Where history and trade run deep in America's heartland

THE MIGHTY Mississippi, 'Father of Waters' and principal river of the United States, flows for 2,348 miles (3,779km) from the Great Lakes in the north to the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana.

Rising in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, the river - the name comes from the Algonquin Indian words 'misi' (big) and 'sipi' (water) - winds through 10 states, forming the state lines for Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the way it passes through Minneapolis-St Paul, St Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

With more than 100 tributaries, the Mississippi drains all or part of 31 US states and two Canadian provinces.

It is joined at St Louis by the Missouri: their combined length makes it the third largest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon. A third river, the Ohio, feeds in at Cairo, Illinois, to create a sluggish brown flow that can be up to a mile-and-a-half bank to bank.

Christened the 'highway of commerce' in the 19th century, the Mississippi is now one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world. It transports several billion dollars' worth of goods, from grain to rocket boosters, carrying 13 per cent of all inter- city commercial traffic and 40 per cent of US grain exports. More than 4,000 towboats pilot barges up to 1,500ft long bearing goods. A trip down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans takes about 15 days; the upper river is heavily congested because of the locks and dams, and traffic jams are common after the grain harvest.

No other body of water features so prominently in popular culture. Along with road movies and gas-guzzling cars covered in chrome, the Mississippi River and its environs have become a modern cliche, especially in the world of advertising.

A New Orleans funeral procession laying an old pair of Levis to rest; a bar where an inter-racial couple is 'mixing it' while knocking back Southern Comfort; a shanty-town porch where a big- city record producer courts a Heineken-drinking bluesman. The Mississippi may not actually be visible in all of these, but it is coursing in the background. It all began with Mark Twain, and his story of an outcast boy and a runaway slave, Huckleberry Finn, is the quintessential American classic. Twain's recollection of the Mississippi was entrenched in his own experiences as a riverboat pilot and the nostalgia for his youth along the river banks in Missouri.

Indeed Sammuel Clemens took his pen name from the cry of the boatman taking soundings, 'mark twain' meaning two fathoms or safe water.

The prevalent mood in the area has always been the blues. Born of poverty and the legacy of slavery, the 'Devil's music' can be traced back to the Mississippi delta and its rural communities.

It was there that bluesmen such as Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf started to pick their way into musical legend. The style they played is even called Delta Blues and refers to a brooding music where the guitar strings are often fretted with a broken bottleneck or steel finger- stall to make the guitar moan.

It is no wonder then that almost every rock 'n' roll band, from the Rolling Stones to Indigo Girls, have at least one song about the Mississippi.

Broadway, of course, could not ignore the river, and it made its mark with such hits as Showboat and Big River, and the sound of Paul Robeson and a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune: 'That ol' man river jest keeps on rollin . . .' (Map omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific