Minstrel man tells truths to listening ears

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 5, 2001

Features Editor

The traveling minstrel man is part of Americana and a part of the romance of the land. However, his brand of song, storytelling and news is a fast fading form of entertainment. If it were not for a few men like ‘Riverboat John" Ferguson, the minstrel man might vanish completely.

For 40 years, Ferguson has been providing stage and roving entertainment in every nook and cranny in the country. He is a singer, actor, master storyteller, composer and banjo and period instrument player. And, he brought his unique from of entertainment to the Pioneer Museum of Alabama Friday night much to the delight, amusement and enjoyment of those who attended.

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"The turnout was light because of the weather, but those who came had a wonderful time, said Charlotte Gibson, museum director. "The children enjoyed him as much as the adults. Riverboat John is an outstanding performer and he can hold anyone’s interest with his great story telling ability. We were very fortunate to have him in Troy and we hope to have him back again, perhaps for a week, so he visit the schools, as well as adult centers and also perform in concert."

There’s nothing Ferguson would like any better.

Alabama is one of his favorite states.

"It’s beautiful here," he said. "I love the countryside and there are so many stories to be told here. To be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener. I love to listen and I would like to spend time in Alabama listening to the tales – truths – that could be told. One of my great joys is traveling about the country, listening to stories and learning from them."

Ferguson adopted the name "Riverboat John" because he loves the rivers and river towns where traveling minstrel men performed.

"Of all the places I have been, I count the river towns among my favorite and New Orleans tops the list," he said.

Ferguson is almost envious of the

minstrel man who traveled by boat from town to town playing music, telling stories and spreading the news.

"The minstrel man was always fed well and was always provided with one of the nicest places to stay," Ferguson said. "His longevity in a town depended on his versatility. People loved to hear new and different material, but they also expected to hear the good old songs and stories of days gone by."

Today, Ferguson doesn’t travel down the river by boat.

He travels along it and over it in his motor home.

"Kind of far removed from a riverboat," he said, laughing as he gestured toward his home-on-wheels.

The mode of travel is different, but the snappy dressed "Riverboat John" looks as though he just stepped of a boat in New Orleans.

He not only sings and tell stories, he accompanies himself on either banjo, taterbug mandolin, lute, cittern, guitar or flute and tin whistle. All of his stories are either true or "near" truth stories about people from his past or relatives – sometimes even his wife, Shirley. And, everywhere he goes, his performance has many of the same elements.

"Sometimes I’ll gear the show toward a specific group," he said. "But, one thing I’ve learned during my 40 years on the road is that people are all pretty much the same. Plain folks are plain folks, city folks are city folks, rich folks are rich folks, poor folks are poor folks and they all act accordingly."

And, no matter where he goes or what kind of folks are in the audience, Ferguson knows he can please them all with his all-time top four songs – "Shenandoah," "Amazing Grace," "Old Man River" and "Danny Boy."

"Folks everywhere respond to those four songs," he said. "Of course, those aren’t the only songs I do. I have a lot of songs to sing and a lot of stories to tell and I’ll keep singing and telling until the audience starts squirming and then I’ll hush."

Ferguson has expanded his contributions to Americana by penning three books.

The first book, Amazing Gastronomical Anecdotes, is soon to be published. It’s a book filled with good humor and good food.

Beans, Boats and Banjos

is filled with river talk and exploits, that he can put on paper, and Fah Mee Do Speaks

relates the tales of an African storyteller. Both are ready to submit for publication.

"Life has been good to me," Ferguson said. "Around every bend, there’s a story to be told and someone waiting to listen. And, that’s where I’m headed – around the bend."