Local man takes hobby to riverfront to greet tourists

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A new character started greeting riverboat visitors this spring. He wears a silk top hat and a smart red vest.

And he plays a banjo.

Pat Shehan started plucking for visitors this month, greeting them with a tune and a smile.

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He plays the part of a busker, or a street musician, a common occupation along the Mississippi in the riverboats’ heyday, he said.

“He’s a one-man show,” Shehan said. “It used to be you had someone playing down on the landing or on the street in almost every town.”

He and his wife, Linda, moved from Duluth, Minn., to Natchez approximately three years ago after passing through as tourists themselves. They liked it so much that they bought a house and settled in.

A photographer by trade, Shehan has made music his hobby since he was young. He owned a banjo for several years but never really spent time playing it — that is, until a recent hurricane.

“When Katrina hit, our lights went off,” Shehan said. “My wife was out of town, and there was nothing to do, so I used it to entertain myself. I really got into it again.”

The idea struck Shehan that he could play a part in welcoming visitors as they stepped off the boats.

“I looked for something to do to help tourism without having to get multiple people together,” Shehan said. “I just get my banjo and my little costume and go down and greet the boats.”

He bought his outfit — designed to look like a musician out of the nineteenth century — and started practicing tunes from the 1840s and 50s. They were pop tunes of the time, and some are still recognizable today, he said. Others are less well known.

“I found one of the old songs called Natchez Under-the-Hill,” Shehan said. “It doesn’t have any lyrics, but I thought it was appropriate.”

Since he started playing his banjo for the boats, Shehan said he has received stares and smiles alike.

“One guy actually said, ‘You improve the landscape immensely,’” Shehan said. “Sometimes people dance up the ramp when I’m playing.”

Some visitors were surprised to find a musician greeting them when they docked Under-the-Hill Monday.

“We have been on a riverboat tour before, but that was unusual,” Shirley Curry from Mifflinburg, Pa., said. “It’s really neat.”

Her husband, Paul Curry, was impressed.

“He’s very knowledgeable and personable,” he said.

June Gillespie of Port Charlotte, Fla., said she loved seeing Shehan playing as she got off the boat.

“I took a picture of him immediately,” Gillespie said. “He’s the first banjo player I’ve run into so far. He’s cute with his hat and outfit.”

Lani Riches, who, along with her husband Ron, owns Monmouth Plantation, said she was pleased to see Shehan and other volunteers greeting the boats.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Riches said. “We are so excited. The energy level has just changed since the boats have come back. (Under-the-Hill) has really come to life.”