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Calliope Duel

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mississippi River steamboats normally got along with one another tolerably well. Competition seldom ended in deaths, steamboat men generally being more imaginative than fearsome.

Take the duel between rival showboats, the "American" and the "Wonderland" not far from St. Louis in 1915. Fortunately for both sides, the choice of weapons was the calliope.

The “American” was easing into a landing at Bonnett's Mill, anticipating an evening performance. On board, Calliope Red was well into "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" at the steam keyboard, when the "Wonderland" appeared around the bend, also intending to present an evening performance.

The calliope player on the “Wonderland” sent out a challenge to a duel. "What You Goin' Do When the Rent Comes Round?" he played. "You ain't going stand for that, are you," Calliope Red's buddies asked.

"Turn up the steam," said Calliope Red. "I'll make those fake musicians jump in the river." He played "Mornin' Si," a tune which implied the persons addressed were clumsy clodhoppers.

The "Wonderland” fired back with "Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye."

A contemptuous Calliope Red replied with "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat." The desperate "Wonderland” responded with "I Don't Like Your Family."

Now Red was really mad. He banged out "Silver Threads Among the Gold," a reference to the much older and aging "Wonderland."

The insult caused the calliope player on the "Wonderland" to lose his temper. "When I Get You Alone Tonight," he played.

Calliope Red responded to the threat with "Get Out and Get Under." "Getting under" in steamboat parlance meant under a boat, that is, certain death.

It was too much. The "Wonderland" surrendered. Its calliope silenced, she slid back into the channel in defeat. Don't take that to mean the "American" won. Since the townspeople along the levee had already gotten an exciting free performance, they may well have decided to skip the evening show.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.