LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI – a mini musical adaptation

T-L2

 

I recently created the TWAIN page, where you can read about stories and listen to musical excerpts from my Mark Twain musical comedy beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN.  Below I will reproduce a complete scene from the musical, the mini-adaptation of a crucial section from Twain’s autobiographical Life on the Mississippi.

This segment deals with Twain growing up on the banks of the Mississippi river, dreaming about becoming a steamboat pilot.  His dream will come true, but not without perilous and humorous challenges.  Eventually youthful ambition and wonder grows into wistful adult wisdom.

The main songs from this section, Let the River Flow, Mississippi Song and Sunset in the River, can be heard in edited versions on the TWAIN page, but here I will include complete recordings and a complete libretto of the Life on the Mississippi section of beTwixt, beTween and beTWAIN.  You can also listen to jazz singer Jacqui Sutton’s take on Mississippi Song (and another song from the same musical) here.

And now, without further ado…

T-Life2

 

LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

Story: Mark Twain   Music, Lyrics and Adaptation: Danny Ashkenasi

 

DOWN TO THE RIVER AND FAR FAR AWAY

 

Down to the River/Let the River Flow

 

SOLO:

Once in Missouri, south of St. Louis

There lived a future grand troubadour

He didn’t know yet what peels of laughter

What tales and stories

He had in store

He was a young man longing to sail the

Grand Mississippi

Some lucky day

One day he’ll tell the story of going

Down to the river and far far away

 

LET THE RIVER FLOW

 

ALL:

Let the river flow

See the waters deepen downstream

Let the Mississippi grow

Into your dreams

 

Take the riverboat

From St. Louis to New Orleans

On the mighty river float

Into your dreams

 

NARRATOR:

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was to be a steamboatman.

 

BOY:

We had transient ambitions: when a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns;

 

ANOTHER BOY:

Now and then we hoped that if we were good, God would permit us to be pirates.

 

NARRATOR:

These ambitions faded out, but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.

 

ALL:

Let the river flow

From St. Louis to New Orleans

Let the Mississippi grow

Into your dreams

 

NARRATOR:

Boy after boy managed to get on the river.

 

BOY:

The doctor’s son became a bar-keeper on a boat.

 

ANOTHER BOY:

The minister’s son became an engineer.

 

NARRATOR:

But pilot was the grandest position of all. Two months of a pilot’s wages would pay a preacher’s salary for a year. I had comforting daydreams of a future when I should be a great and honored riverboat pilot.

T-L4

 

MISSISSIPPI SONG

Mississippi Song

 

WOMAN:

Day by day

The Mississippi flows by my home

Singing a melody she beckons me to roam

 

Night by night

She’s calling me to come with her soon

Singing her lullaby, her sweet inviting tune

 

The river smiles to me to give her a try

Follow my fortune ere it all flows on by

I’m like a bird afraid to take to the sky

Lying awake with fear and questions

I hear her soft suggestions

To follow my intentions to fly

 

Day and night

The Mississippi beckons to me

Calls with a siren song to come along to see/sea

 

There oh there

The world awaits with glory and fame

I see it glistening and whispering my name

 

BIXBY:

What is the shape of Walnut Bend?

 

NARRATOR:

I didn’t know it had any particular shape, Mr. Bixby…

 

BIXBY:

My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. But mind you, it hasn’t the same shape in the night than it has in the day-time.

 

NARRATOR:

How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?

 

BIXBY:

How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the shape of it. You can’t see it.

 

NARRATOR:

Do you mean to say I’ve got to know all the million trillion variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well as I know the shape of the front hall at home?

 

BIXBY:

On my honor, you’ve got to know them better.

 

NARRATOR:

I wish I was dead.

 

BIXBY:

Now, I don’t want to discourage you, but…

 

NARRATOR:

Very well, I’ll try it; but after I learned it can I depend on it? Will it keep the same form and not go fooling around?

 

  1. W-:

Bixby, you’ll have a look out for President’s island. The banks are caving and the shape of the shores changing like everything.

 

NARRATOR:

So that question is answered…

It was plain that I had to learn the shape of the river in all the different ways that could be thought of, – upside down, wrong end first, inside out, fore and aft… So I set about to do it. In the course of time I began to get the best of the knotty lesson.

 T-L1

 

BIXBY:

Do you see that long slanting line on the face of the water? Now that’s a bluff reef..

There is a solid sand-bar under it as straight as the side of a house. Do you see where the line fringes out at the upper end?

 

NARRATOR:

Yes, sir.

 

BIXBY:

Well that is a low place; you can climb over there and not hurt anything.

Now get ready. Wait till I give the word. She won’t want to mount the reef; boat hates shoal water. Stand by – wait – wait

Now cramp her down! Snatch her! Snatch her!

Mississippi Song Part 2

Good.

Do you know how to run the next few miles?

 

NARRATOR:

Go inside the first snag above the point, outside the next one, start out from the lower end of Higgin’s wood-yard, make a square crossing and…

 

BIXBY:

That’s all right. I’ll be back before you close up on the next point. (leaves)

 

All but Narrator hum Mississippi Song

 

NARRATOR:

But he wasn’t. He was still below when I rounded it. I went gaily along, getting prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my sole charge such a length of time before.

And then my mouth dropped with a shocked disbelief

For right ahead I saw a dangerous reef

It’s deadly bluff was heading straight for our bow

Oh where on earth is Mr. Bixby

Oh where is Mr. Bixby

Oh where could Mr. Bixby be now?!

 

NARRATOR:                                                                        OTHERS:

That reef was following wherever I went                          Following wherever I went

That reef was after me with deadly intent                                    After me with deadly intent

I knew that I would have to do something rash                I would have to do something rash

And so I sent the ship careening                                       

 

ALL:

To one side all was leaning

I steered us down an up-bend

So that the ship may not end up smashed up in a horrible crash!

 

BIXBY:

Stop the starboard. Stop the larboard. Set her back on both.

 

NARRATOR:

Mr. Bixby stepped calmly into view. I did not know that he had been hiding behind the chimney to see how I would perform.

 

BIXBY:

The officer of the watch will tell you when he wants to wood up.

 

NARRATOR:

I wasn’t after wood

 

BIXBY:

Why, what would you want to follow a bend up-stream at this stage of the river?

 

NARRATOR:

I wasn’t trying to follow it. I was getting away from the bluff reef.

 

BIXBY:

There isn’t a bluff reef within three miles of where you were.

 

NARRATOR:

But I saw it. That one yonder.

 

BIXBY:

Run over it

 

NARRATOR:

Do you give it as an order?

 

BIXBY:

Yes. Run over it.

 

NARRATOR:

I impressed my orders upon my memory, to be used at the inquest.

 

Anticipation. No contact. Release.

Mississippi Song Part 3

 

BIXBY:

Now don’t you see the difference? It wasn’t anything but a wind reef. The wind does that.

 

NARRATOR:

But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?

 

BIXBY:

I can’t tell you. It’s an instinct. By and by you will just naturally know one from the other, but you will never be able to explain why or how you know them apart.

 

ALL:                                                                           NARRATOR:

The river smiles to you to give her a try               I will go and give it a try

Follow your fortune ere it all flows on by             Follow you before you go by

You’re like a bird afraid to take to the sky                       Spread my wings and take to the sky

Welcome the answer to the question

 

ALL:

Arise to the suggestion

And follow the intention to fly

 

Day and night

The Mississippi beckons to me

Calls with a siren song to come along to see/sea

 

There oh there

The world awaits with glory and fame

I see it glistening and whispering my name

(Day by day)

 

NARRATOR:

It turned out to be true. The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book, which told its mind to me without reserve, and which had a new story to tell every day. There never was so wonderful a book written by man.

T-steamboat

 

SUNSET ON THE RIVER

Sunset on the River

 

WOMAN :

As we gently float

On the riverboat

Sunrays paint the water with a gold-tinged crimson coat

Sunlight softly marks

Dancing slanting sparks

Round a drifting log that passes by us still and dark

Nature paints the scene

Varied and serene

Brushstrokes streak the water and the shore line’s rich and green

Sit here by my side

While we gently glide

Let us two together

Watch the sunset on the river

See the fading of the sunlight

For the waiting starry night

 

NARRATOR:

The passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but pretty pictures in it, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter

 

ALL:

As we gently float

On the riverboat

Sunrays paint the water with a gold-tinged crimson coat

 

NARRATOR:

This sun means that we are going to have wind tomorrow.

 

ALL:

Sunlight softly marks

Dancing slanting sparks

Round a drifting log that passes by us still and dark

 

NARRATOR:

That floating log means that the river is rising.

Those slanting marks on the water refer to a bluff reef, which will kill someone’s steamboat one of these days.

 

ALL:

Nature paints the scene

Varied and serene

Brushstrokes streak the water and the shore line’s rich and green

 

NARRATOR:

Those lines in the water are a warning that a troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously.

That tall dead tree on the shoreline won’t last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?

 

ALL:

Sit here by my side

While we gently glide

 

NARRATOR:

I had mastered the language of this water, but I had lost something too. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river, and could never be restored to me.

 

ALL:

Let us two together

Watch the sunset on the river

See the fading of the sunlight

For the waiting starry night

 

Let the river flow

From St. Louis to New Orleans

Let the Mississippi grow

Into your dreams

T-Sunset

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in Literary Lyricism, Live! On Stage, Musicabilia and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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