Melody Golding honored by Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library

Published 2:41 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Originally published in the Waterways Journal April 17, 2023 edition.

The Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library, a special collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, recently recognized Vicksburg’s Melody Golding’s work for her contribution to a better understanding of the American inland waterways.

The Donald T. Wright Award was presented to Golding for her book “Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots.” The award presentation was held on April 6 at the Pott Library.

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An internationally recognized photojournalist, Golding is married to the owner of multigenerational Golding Barge Line, a family-owned business, and has heard more than her share of stories about life on the river, but none she knew of had been recorded for posterity. For some reason, said Nelson Spencer, chairman of The Waterways Journal, in his introduction of her, stories about the river just simply bear telling, and most go unrecorded. Now, someone has taken the time and effort to set them down in writing and preserve them for the future.

Equipped with an assortment of cameras, notebooks and a tape recorder, Golding spent no less than 10 years interviewing more than 100 towboat pilots, ship pilots, cruise pilots and Coast Guard pilots, traveling to river towns and often riding the boats to talk to the men and women whose recollections she sought.

“Life Between the Levees” begins with a narrative of a riverman who was born in 1915 and worked on the stern-wheel steamboat Reliance, wheelbarrowing coal to the steam engines. It ends 300 pages later with the words of a pilot born in 1987, who runs excursion vessels with all the modern tools of navigation.

Not only do the stories provide the reader with a sense of the progress that’s taken place in towboat life over the years, but they paint an entertaining picture of the people who make their living on the river. One storyteller recounts a foggy night on the Atchafalaya River when the crew of a towboat tried to tie the boat off on a stump only to find out when they threw the line, that it was a bear curled up on the bank.

Another time, during the interview, a pilot from a company other than Golding Barge requested that Melody take a photo of his tattoo. It was the company’s logo, he said repeatedly, despite her polite refusals. Undeterred, Golding told the packed room, the pilot revealed the logo anyway, which, as she suspected, had been etched on his derriere.

Others’ similar experiences add to the richness of the book. Interspersed throughout are Golding’s colorful photographs.

“Please know,” Golding writes in the forward, “the reflections within this book are a very rare look into the personal lives of those who have dedicated themselves to the river. It is authentic, honest, sometimes funny, outrageous, often sad, and even tragic, as is true with all real-life stories no matter the profession. It is a slice of genuine American folklore.”

Melody Golding’s two previous books, “Katrina” and “Panther Tract,” were acquired in part by the Smithsonian Institution. Her photographs, published in various national and international journals, are on display at the Department of Homeland Security and have been featured in solo exhibitions at numerous universities and museums.

“Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots” is sold on Amazon and can be bought through the University Press of Mississippi. All proceeds go to the Seamen’s Church Institute.