The Okee Dokee Brothers’ educational trip down the Mississippi
The Mississippi River is a true cultural legend.
It has been an inspiration to artists and writers from Mark Twain to Johnny Cash, and is as much of a backbone for American art as it is for American industry. In the summer of 2011, the Okee Dokee Brothers, a Minneapolis-based children’s band, set off to find their own inspiration on the Mississippi, embarking on a thousand mile educational adventure down the river, hoping to write songs as they paddled along.
“Growing up, we were always big fans of Huck Finn and those [kind of] stories. When we were younger, we always had a dream of taking a raft down the river,” says Joe Mailander, one half of the duo. “This trip was basically just us realizing a childhood dream.”
Originally from Denver, childhood friends Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander toured the Midwest with a bluegrass band before settling in Minneapolis, and turning their focus toward independent children’s music.
“Our songwriting was going in a more fantastical and absurd direction, which we found kids could relate to sometimes more than adults. Then, we had a few random experiences performing for kids and loved the nature of those shows. We loved watching families enjoying time together,” says Mailander. “We don’t have kids ourselves, but we find that sometimes not being parents gives us a certain advantage when interacting with kids, maybe because we’re still very much kids ourselves. We’re like their older brothers.”
In the past few years, the Okee Dokee Brothers have become one of the most popular acts in children’s music, releasing two albums, playing shows all over the country, and earning critical acclaim for their thoughtful and dedicated songwriting. Most recently, they won a national Parents’ Choice award for their 2010 album Take It Outside.
So when it came time for their next album, the band knew they wanted to do something big; something that would not only inspire them, but their listeners as well. After a four day trip along River Road through Minnesota and Wisconsin, they thought back to the hours spent playing by creeks when they were kids themselves, fishing, making rafts, and jumping off rope swings.
“We thought that could make a great motif for a record,” says Mailander.
The band planned to travel for 30 days down the Mississippi, all the way from Minnesota to St. Louis. Along the way, they were set to camp each night and canoe every day, with hopes of meeting new friends and interesting characters, and most importantly, finding inspiration for a new collection of songs.
“Authors will research material for years before writing, but songwriting, especially for children, doesn’t really get that same sort of treatment,” says Mailander. “Families deserve quality art that’s filled with stories that resonate deep within our history and our culture. That’s what we set off to make.”
Researching and relocating
Preparation for the adventure went beyond only addressing issues of safety and logistics. The journey was about the music first and foremost, and the band knew it was important to understand the river’s history and culture before they started writing songs. Their research even led them to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“We dug through the old public domain folk songs about the river, and found some real gems,” said Mailander. “There’s so much history surrounding the river, and a lot of these songs really capture that.”
The band planned to drop in the water on the morning of June 1st, at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul, but faced an unexpected challenge early. The water had risen to unsafe levels, and the band had to readjust, delaying the launch and forcing the crew to find a new departure location.
But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Instead, the band decided to set out at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, which gave them a chance to experience a whole different part of the river than initially planned.
“It’s a completely different river up north,” says Lansing. “It’s blue and clear, almost more like the ocean. We could jump right off the canoe and into the river.”
To keep up pace, the band had to paddle an average of 30 miles a day. By the end, it was an absolutely exhausting experience.
“There were the moments of thinking ‘Wait, what are we doing? Why are we doing this?’ But the art takes precedence,” says Mailander, explaining that the band never considered turning around.
Friend Jed Anderson accompanied the crew for the first five days of the trip, and left thinking they might be in over their heads.
“After five days, I was done. I was exhausted. Before the trip, I thought it would be no problem, but I left thinking ‘holy cow,’ that is going to be so intense,” says Anderson. “I thought they were crazy.”
Yet the band persevered, navigating through locks, avoiding barges, and trying their best to keep on schedule.
“At times I couldn’t believe where we were,” says Lansing. “I remember coming across an island of nesting birds, just thousands of pelicans and egrets on one little island. It was amazing experiencing things like that, because you never could imagine it in everyday life.”
“We had some fantastic experiences with meeting people on the river,” says Mailander. “There were a lot of serendipitous interactions with people helping us out that we didn’t expect.”
The last river rat—and
Becky Thatcher, too
One of the most memorable experiences for the band was spending three days with Kenny Salwey, a storyteller, woodsman, and river guide known as the “Last River Rat.” Salwey has lived on the river for years, and has become an advocate for the river’s history and ecological preservation. He shared stories about the river, as well as some valuable lessons, reminding the band to always respect the river and its power.
“He’s met so many people and done so many interesting things, that he can take any one of the trinkets hanging in his shack and tell a story about somebody or something, and then turn it a universal lesson for everybody,” says Mailander. “He was honestly one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, and it was almost a mystical experience. He has a lot of wisdom.”
Further south, they visited Hannibal, Missouri, the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
“We met a family that was so generous and hospitable, and the daughter just happened to be the Becky Thatcher ambassador for the town, in dress and everything. So we got to hang out with ‘Becky Thatcher’s’ family, right there
on the river,” says Mailander. “It was pretty unreal.”
Only three days before the trip was over, the crew faced their biggest setback. A powerful storm blew in at night, almost leveling the campsite. Chaos reigned as tents were destroyed and water damaged much of their recording equipment.
“It came at a time in our trip we thought we were already there,” said Lansing. “It really proved to us that you can never get too comfortable in nature.”
The crew had to paddle 70 miles in one day to make up for lost time, in one last push toward the finish line. Nearly a thousand miles and 30 days after they left the blue waters of Lake Itasca, the Gatewat Arch finally came into view.
Sighs of relief were mixed with lingering questions. Maybe, they thought, they should keep going, and follow the river to its end. But the band had to return to the real world, with shows scheduled, and responsibilities to come home to.
“The river goes on, but we had to stop,” says Lansing. “A part of us was left wishing we could see it all the way to the end.”
The band survived, made it on schedule, and came out with more than 20 songs about the river, friendship, and adventure. In the end, the trip was a success.
“The songs were about the river, but the same time we wanted to keep them as universal as possible, so that everybody can connect to them,” says Lansing. “We didn’t want it to seem like you have to be in our moment or mindset to enjoy the song.”
The band is in the studio finishing the album now, which promises to be the first of a series of adventure-based albums. Along with the music, the band documented much of the trip, and hopes to release a DVD video accompaniment. In the end, they hope the album is received for both for the music, and for the adventure behind it.
“It’s going to be a really cool story for kids to connect to,” says Mailander. “ And that was the whole point, to make kids think that if we did it, then they can do stuff like this too. We want them to dream big.”
More information about the Okee Dokee Brothers, including upcoming tour dates, music from their albums, and a blog about their adventure, can be found at OkeeDokee.org.