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A Honky-Tonk Cannonball Chugs Up From the Delta

Everybody hops back on board and the train chugs off toward Atlanta.

By now it's late afternoon and the performers are getting thirsty. Fortunately, there's a big Styrofoam cooler in the back of the performers' car, and it's packed with bottles of Abita beer and a half-gallon of rum. It's a gift from the Kennedy Center folks, who plan to serve after Atlanta, where the last platform performance will take place. But Atlanta is hours away and the musicians are thirsty now and somebody cracks open a beer, which inspires somebody else to crack open a beer and . . . it's party time!

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," Super Chikan sings.

"That's my state song -- the Louisiana state song!" says Vic Shepherd, who plays the music for his wife's Calliope Puppets theater company. He starts to sing along: "You make me happy when skies are gray."

Super Chikan plays the chorus on his cigar-box guitar, closing his eyes and biting his lower lip with his shiny gold teeth while Shepherd harmonizes on harmonica.

When they finish, Super Chikan announces that he's going to sing some nursery rhymes. And he does, but his versions are a tad lustier than the originals. Who knew that Goldilocks, Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Old MacDonald and Old Mother Hubbard carried on with such uninhibited erotic abandon?

Things are getting rowdy here in the performers' car. But elsewhere on the train, all is quiet.

In the cafe car, artist Rowena Bowman of Kiln, Miss., is putting the finishing touches on a construction-paper collage that depicts the flooding she saw during Hurricane Katrina, which dropped a tree inches from her front door.

In the sleeper car, Irving Banister, 40, a New Orleans garbageman, sews beads on a piece of cloth. He's a member of the legendary Wild Magnolias, a group of "Indians" who march in the Mardi Gras parade in gloriously garish costumes. The cloth he's sewing will one day become part of his costume, which already includes a huge headdress made of white ostrich feathers and a beaded "apron" depicting an Indian brave shooting a buffalo. On the apron he's sewing now, an eagle soars past a setting sun.

"The Wild Magnolias have taken the apron to a whole 'nother level," he says proudly.

While Banister sews his setting sun, the sun is setting over Georgia, throwing long, soft shadows over a junkyard and a field dotted with horses and a house covered by kudzu and a store with a sign that says "Full Service Gun Shop."

When the train pulls into Atlanta, it's dark outside and a dim light bulb struggles to illuminate the Amtrak platform. As the performers step off the train, the light goes out. Then it comes back on again.


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