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)