Friday, January 4, 2008


It's been a long time since my student days and all those Art History classes, but this is one painting I remember very well. It's called "The Jolly Flatboatmen in Port" - painted by the 19th Century American artist, George Caleb Bingham. George painted river scenes up and down the Missouri River frontier, doing different versions of the same theme - boatmen. This one is listed as being in the St. Louis Art Museum, and I recall one with men and a pet cat sitting on the boat from my regular visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts as a kid. Anyway, what I have always liked about this one is the image of that truly jolly fellow in the middle, dancing like it's going out of style. You can almost hear the fiddle music (probably some ancient mountain air brought over by immigrants from the British Isles). I'd love to be able to click my mouse on his feet and bring him to life, to see just what kind of jig or hop he's doing. It must have been pretty popular in its time, because you can still find echoes of it today. I'm sure there are other references out there, but here's three to get things started.

"Yes to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free"
Mr. Tambourine Man - Bob Dylan.
You won't find this verse in the Byrds' version; you gotta go right to the source. And boy is this video going to take you back!!

"We'll sing and dance with one hand free..."
Back in the High Life Again - Steve Winwood.
Obviously this kind of dancing is made for celebration! Who wouldn't feel like kicking up their heels and waving after a long boring stretch floating on the river...although it's not clear to me why the flatboatmen are still hanging out on the boat instead of heading straight to the House of the Rising Sun...but hey, that's another song and another story...
Listen for the little bit of James Taylor chiming in at the end

And most recently...

In that charming 2005 semi-road movie/chick flick, "Elizabethtown" (starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, and a host of cameos) when the character Drew (Bloom) is making his journey home, as orchestrated by Dunst's character, Claire, he is instructed to "make time to dance with one hand waving free." The following YouTube video of scene from the movie shows the dancing scene right at the very end, at about the 3:36 mark. There he is, Drew/Bloom, dancing away with his one hand (and also two) waving free. The music in the video is from the movie, although I don't recall if it's the exact music that was playing in that particular scene. Anyway, the song is "Same In Any Language" by the alt group, I Nine. In fact, the whole soundtrack is good.


Quiet Paths said...

Matthew mentioned, when he saw this post, that in Bingham's painting that the guy playing the skillet demonstrates the artist's observational skills - the man is playing the skillet like a Bodhran or Irish drum. That is, with a stick or something similar. Cool.

deb said...

Thank you Quiet Paths for the info on the Bodhran! I love knowing additional bits of trivia like that, and it gives me even more to enjoy about this painting.