Stephen Fry journeys across America, a country that has always fascinated him. A 2,000-mile journey up the Mississippi begins in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
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The mighty Mississippi River is the theme of this part of my journey and I'll be following it from here
at its sultry southernmost tip in Louisiana
to its source in the snowy wastes of Minnesota on the Canadian border.
Welcome to the Mardi Gras, Planet Earth, come on down to the best free party in the world!
I'm in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana
and today is Shrove Tuesday, which they call Mardi Gras,
the French for Fat Tuesday and everyone is celebrating,
not only the last chance to feast before Lent,
but also the beginnings of the rebirth of this unique city
after the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina.
You might notice I'm wearing a sling, that's because
I've broken my arm and ten bolts are holding the bones together.
I shan't be felling any trees, but I'm hoping it will be healing as we go.
Welcome aboard Pan Am flight 69.
If there's a word that makes me shiver with revulsion, it's the word "fun".
And here, human beings are having fun with the most capital of "f"s imaginable
but actually, it is quite infectious and the spirit is good.
One wonders how many of the revellers here
are actually taking the religious point of view and will tomorrow foreswear meat and celebration.
Not many, I suspect.
It's a very extraordinary event.
It combines so much that one associates with New Orleans,
a slight hint of the macabre, which obsesses this torrid and steamy place,
plus a general feeling that there is no tomorrow.
While Mardi Gras is a resolutely Catholic festival,
Catholicism, which came first with the Spanish and then the French colonists,
is not really the defining faith of New Orleans.
At the core of people's spiritual life here is the mysterious religion known as voodoo.
Sallie Ann Glassman, a Jewish lady from Kennebunkport, Maine
seems a rather unlikely voodoo high priestess.
Voodoo is the backbone of this city that is
an absolute part of the culture.
It's in the rhythms you hear, filtering through all of New Orleans music.
Voodoo recognises that there is a whole invisible realm around us.
Between God and humanity are myriad intermediary ancestral spirits.
They have maybe a different prospective on life.
One of the things that you learn as you become a priest in voodoo is
how to reach into that invisible realm and pull that potential out.
In popular imagination, voodoo is more associated than anything else with sticking pins in effigies,
with zombieism, with curses, with slaughtering cockerels and white chickens
and blood, it's considered a very dark religion, isn't it?
Well, it's completely erroneous.
Voodoo is a mix of African traditions that came over with slavery into the New World.
It encountered European Catholicism and native American practises and also masonry.
So voodoo is really a gumbo of all of these different traditions.
'I'm no more a believer in the power of voodoo than in the Virgin Mary,
'but my arm is hurting and I recognise a good placebo when I see one.'
I think that New Orleans, because of the presence of voodoo here,
has a chance of surviving Katrina.
-Because voodoo was a religion
that allowed people to endure what was truly unendurable,
the conditions of slavery, and gave them the strength and the resilience
and the creativity to survive whatever happened to them.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina screamed in and destroyed much of New Orleans
when the levees, these high banks that hold back the Mississippi and the lakes around the city, broke.
Nowhere felt the immediate and long term effects of the hurricane
more than the predominantly black lower ninth ward,
a district of New Orleans that lies below the main canal.
90% of the houses were destroyed and three years on,
practically nothing has been done to re-build the community.
'I meet up with Isaiah, who was on his second tour of duty
'with the US Marines in Iraq when the storm hit.'
You know, when I came back home...
I would have like these flashes in my mind, you know,
cos I used to walk, I used to roam these streets.
-My school's right back here.
-Yeah. So that's the school there?
-Yeah, this is Alfred Lawless.
-Oh... Good Lord.
Oh, there it is, senior high school.
This is how Iraq is.
-A bunch of torn down buildings.
Grass, you know, grown sky high.
-The streets ridiculously undriveable, you know.
Desolate, quiet, you know, I feel like I'm on a patrol right now
and then what made it worse was seeing the National Guard
-riding around in their Humvees, you know.
-Yes, they still do.
-They patrol around in Humvees
and there's just no need for that escalation of force, because number one, nobody's here.
If this was a middle-class white neighbourhood, I cannot believe it would be in this situation.
-It would not be in this situation.
I mean, I love the United States of America, you know.
I love my country, but you look at the name - the United States of America -
I mean, here, I hardly see unity, you know.
I leave the French Quarter cleansed of its revelries, safe on its high ground,
secure in its history and proud of its un-Americanness, to start my journey northwards,
up the Mississippi, the river that runs through the heart of this great country.
The sheer scale of the river is overwhelming.
It disgorges half a million cubic feet per second and in places is more than a mile wide.
Old Man River is also a great defining line.
Americans often identify a place by its being east or west of the Mississippi.
I'll be travelling more than a thousand miles along its banks,
then through the mid-western plains to the Great Lakes
and their big cities of Detroit and Chicago
until I approach the river's source in Minnesota.
Well, one thing you can say for certain about the State of Louisiana and that is it's always been
pretty hard on its criminals and the State Penitentiary of Louisiana
has a name that has struck fear into the heart of hardened lifers everywhere.
Angola State Penitentiary it's called.
It's probably the most notorious jail in America.
It's a hopeless place, quite literally.
Just about 90% of the prisoners have no hope of parole.
They will end their lives in Angola.
Angola Prison is popularly known as The Farm for good reason.
Its 5,000 inmates, the majority in for murder,
are spread out on its 18,000 acres to work the land
and they're housed in a series of camps.
Warden Burl Cain, who runs the prison, is a legendary figure in the American penal system.
We're going to go into my prison here through all these gates.
-You're not carrying any knives or guns?
-No, we're not.
-OK, I'm going to keep you with me, so...
We're going to be cooled here, but we're gonna not do all the searching.
There's more human suffering on this land than probably anywhere in America.
'When he came here 13 years ago, Angola was a cesspit of gangs, drugs and terrible violence.
'Today, it's become a model of how a prison can work, one he's proud to show off.'
We just passed death row back there too. That other place.
-Is death row down there?
We have a coffin maker that makes coffins.
We almost bury more people than we release.
# Well, I'm tired and so weary
# But I mustn't go alone... #
Burl Cain's vision for the prisoner's rehabilitation is
a curious mix of Christian morality,
good ol' boy paternalism and stern liberalism.
We've gotta live life here and we've gotta have hope where there's no hope and we found morality and religion.
We don't care what religion, we just look for morality, immoral people are criminals in life.
The moral are not criminals. They don't rape, pilfer and steal.
Immoral is what is the criminals, so if we can train an inmate to be moral, we've rehabilitated them.
Every inmate here has a job. That gives them meaning and purpose in life.
You think that a prisoner who murdered somebody
did this and it's his way to give back and say I'm sorry.
You know, and I'm asking forgiveness for what I did so horrible.
-This man is not going to be prone to commit the violence he did in the past.
-And you'd do it for nothing, wouldn't ya?
I'm bragging about you, hear that? LAUGHTER
-That's a paediatric.
-That why I build them strong.
-I test ride them to make sure.
-Right. Do you really?
-If I can fit in that.
-Yeah, not that, you'd probably have trouble.
-I've been Angola now for ten years.
Do you mind me asking what you did to be here?
-Yeah, I'm on a drugs charge.
-A drugs charge?
-Yeah. But you're off drugs now, are you?
-Yeah, I'm clean, clean, sure.
-Is it a clean prison here?
Huh, yeah. Pretty much, you know.
There's a field line coming to work, see how the line is marching?
-And they're going out, they have a guard walking in front.
-Oh, my, my.
And we raise everything we eat. We don't open a can.
-Cos I don't do chain gangs, that's why I have the Correction Officer with the gun.
And if they run away, we're going to shoot a warning shot and the next shot we're going to shoot to wound.
You shoot the gun. You know, I don't just, make the noise.
But if they don't shoot, then the other inmates will all try to climb the fence. So shoot the gun.
-I have 88 on death row.
-They don't go out to work.
I would be afraid they would try to run away, to commit suicide by making us shoot them.
There's repercussions if you aren't good.
You'll lose some privileges you really don't want to lose.
'Driving through his mini-state, it may seem security is pretty lax,
'but Warden Burl soon sets me straight.'
There's 18,000 acres here. This is as large as Manhattan Island, so it's hard to get away from us.
You gotta run a long way before you get onto somebody else's land.
See where the wild hog route right there on the southern levy, on the ridge is wild hogs.
-You've got wild hogs here?
-Wild hogs are dangerous.
If you go into woods, they know if they run in the wood they gotta go through the rattlesnakes.
We have the panther and we have the bear and we have the wild hogs.
-We see alligators here.
-A lot of alligators.
-Another thing to stop you escaping.
Alligators are my guards. They all know they are here, so I have too many guards.
Alligators like to eat dogs, so when we run a blood hound we don't want them chasing the dog.
We have the finest bloodhounds in the country. We can find you.
Shall we set the soundman or maybe the director actually, JP,
Shall we send him to the woods and get him chased?
-I'd love to see that.
-If he runs, I promise you we'll have him back.
-He has a strong smell.
-We could follow him to England.
I escape the seductive if sometimes indecipherable southern drawl of Warden Burl,
who seems to have stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play and leaving Louisiana,
drive to the old cotton town of Natchez, the architectural jewel in the State of Mississippi.
This is the town of Natchez,
one of the great well-preserved southern towns.
Filled with antebellum homes, pre-Civil War houses.
Got rich on cotton and slavery.
This journey is taking me up the great highway that goes all the way
more or less alongside the Mississippi from New Orleans to Chicago, Route 61.
More or less in the middle of it, one finds...this place -
It styles itself the home of the blues.
So many of the great blues musicians were born here and around here.
One of those magical and inexplicable places, rather like, I don't know, Salzburg.
Why should Mozart and Schubert and Haydn all come from a small town in Austria?
Why shouldn't perhaps the most influential music form of the 20th century
come from this frankly rather desolate dirt-poor place, Clarksdale, Mississippi?
It seems like the middle of nowhere.
Maybe all it has left to live on is the former glory of its music.
But there is someone who wants to glory in this past.
Ground Zero is Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman's club.
-I thought when I went to school that a delta...
-Remember that you're talking to a 70-year-old, I mean..
-You're the wisest man in the Universe, we all know that.
You played God twice, you've got to be wiser.
They called it the Delta, because although it is an alluvium plain...
-..the Mississippi River used to flood regularly.
-This whole area?
-This whole area.
So there is all of this alluvium soil here.
-It's extraordinarily rich.
So that's why they call it Delta.
Cotton was king of the Delta for many, many, many, many, many years.
Of course now, we have machines that could do the work of a thousand men in a day.
-So you've a huge population out of work?
-A huge population out of work, huge.
I mean, the point for you is that we have to forget, not forget the past, that's nonsense...
-We can't forget that...
-No, what I mean is we no longer talk about...
-We transcend it.
We don't talk in terms of black and white, of oppressed and oppressor.
We have to start thinking about Americans, about State Citizens, everyone...
-You sound like Barack Obama, you know?
-I guess his time may have come, you know.
-Was that a subtle segue?
-Something motivated you to...
-Yes. To come back.
-Was it a sense of putting something back into a community?
No, it wasn't at all, if I'm going to be honest about it.
Er, it was a realisation of where my peace was in life.
Every time I came,
there was a sense that I got of peace.
A little envious of Morgan's quietude,
I head into the state of Arkansas and a taste of the river
as I pursue my ambitious goal of visiting every state.
Essentially, of course, all the water
of central continental United States drains into this river, doesn't it?
Everything in between Appalachia and the Rockies
and all the way up into the Canadian prairies.
John Ruskey understands the allure of the Mississippi, and runs courses in river craft for urban kids.
It'll sure humble you.
I was born in the Rocky Mountains and I've never been anywhere that I've felt the power of God.
-More than here?
I've climbed fourteeners, I've been the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up.
Hmm, it's interesting and it seems so gentle now.
It's a real Old Man River kind of feel.
It just keeps rolling along.
'John is very much in the tradition of Mark Twin's great literary creation, Huckleberry Finn,
'whose adventures travelling the steamboats
'encapsulates a particularly American sense of restless freedom.'
Huck Finn. What is it about Huck Finn that seems to capture
-the American imagination, almost more than any other book?
We have such a rootless and restless attitude in this country.
-We love looking at the horizon, seeing what's beyond.
There's always something at the end of the rainbow, keep travelling, keep going forward.
Anyone who goes to the edge of the river is always looking downstream wondering where the river goes.
Every time I'm away, I'm always thinking about the Mississippi River.
-Although it's a place you move along, Mississippi is your home, is it?
-Seems like, yeah, yeah.
You can go anywhere on the last thousand miles of the river, the lower Mississippi,
and you feel the same thing, it's these places, big open spaces.
Here we are and... almost nobody passes us.
We've been here, out on the river for some hours now, getting here and eating and preparing food.
-And it's completely peaceful. In some ways, they are frightened of the river.
People are terrified of the river, yeah. And the closer that you live to the river,
the people that live just over the levee there are the ones who are most scared of it.
-But with good reason.
-With good reason.
300 miles further upstream, the city of St Louis, Missouri.
It's where the Mississippi River meets the Missouri River
linking over 5,000 miles of river that unite the Rockies,
the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains.
Although I've only driven a few hundred miles north, it's suddenly turned very cold.
I'm driving to an area that was once the transport hub of the country.
'The long abandoned stock yards were also the home for many, many years of my guide William.'
One of the most unimaginable things about being homeless here is just simply the temperature.
-Today, we're minus five or something and it gets a lot colder than that, doesn't it?
-Well, yeah, you know.
When I was staying in abandoned buildings,
the inside temperatures were a lot colder than the outside temperature.
It's about 20 degrees colder inside.
-How did you keep warm?
-Blankets and a whole lot of clothes.
How many years were you homeless for, William?
Practically half of my life.
In this building, particularly, you had about,
oh, I guess about 25 people living here.
And you had different agencies that would come through here
-and bring you food, bring you the oil for the kerosene heaters.
You know, you didn't really want for nothing.
-That's why you almost didn't want to leave.
It was just like your own apartment, but you just didn't wanna leave. THEY LAUGH
The River Front Hilton.
The River Front Hilton. That's what we called it.
There was so many people living here, it was just like a hotel.
-A fire, how wonderful.
-Hey. How y'all doing today?
-Harry. How do you do?
-How long have you been together?
-Wow. And is this where you...?
-Three years too long.
-You've got a house.
-You might say it's a house.
-We've got two bedrooms.
-This is where you live at.
This is where you are going to make your home at.
-It must so hard.
-No, it's not that bad.
-It's not too bad.
-I was thinking I couldn't survive a day here.
-Do you remember the day you hit that dude in his mouth?
For calling her a homeless crackhead whore.
I bounced him off the cobblestones and into a dumpster and off my knee
and I said that ain't gonna happen. You don't disrespect anybody.
-That's like my little sister.
-He's like my brother-in-law.
We chose to live like this!
So you don't share the American dream if the American dream means
getting your own house and yard and your own mortgage
-and you know, seven TVs and...
-Been there and done that.
Panhandlers, hobos and bums are very much part of American history and folklore.
That sense of freedom that the sheer vastness of the country can evoke perhaps makes the American dream
less about 2.4 children and a house in the burbs than the lure of the open road.
We're in Iowa, the great mid-western state which
is the birthplace of John Wayne and James Tiberius Kirk,
Captain of the United States ship Enterprise.
But I've come here to go to a remarkable city which has its own currency
and uses as its constitution, apparently,
the Constitution of the Universe in order to guarantee perfect order.
Intriguing, isn't it?
It's certainly pretty orderly so far.
A lot of harmony about, I notice, and very little negative energy which is highly pleasing
because I hate negative energy, it sets me in a roar. I can't bear it.
I'm very positive at the moment.
I've got this feeling... holistic...natural energy.
It's the only word I can use.
This place is turning me into a babbling merchant of drivel.
Maharishi Vedic City is the world centre for transcendental meditation,
an ancient form of yoga interpreted by the modern Maharishi, who taught The Beatles.
By activating alpha brainwaves, inner harmony is promoted.
The practitioners believe that TM, as it's often called,
is the answer to both one's personal and all the world's problems. Golly.
Hard to tell what's going on behind closed eyes.
Perhaps illumination will be found with Dr Fred Travis,
who's head of the Research Institute here
at the so-called capital of the global country of world peace.
My alpha waves are to be tested. As well as my credulity.
There's my brain. Hey, look at them. Oh, my Lord.
Oh, dear me. There's certainly something very unpleasant. I'll have to calm down.
It just turns into a horrible, horrible mess, doesn't it?
I do apologise. All right.
So this is you doing the task.
-So what we can see here is there's a little bit more alpha activity.
-There certainly is.
Big high peak. Alpha is more the relaxed wakefulness.
This seems such a sane and an excellent project
for people in search of enlightenment and happiness,
no-ones going to quibble that that's an important and valid quest.
And then, we bang into this idea of yogic flying and you think, "Oh, hello, what's going on here?"
People hopping about in bedrooms.
Looking as if they might be rising off the ground but not really.
Claims which may attract some people, but will turn others like me completely off.
The reason for yogic flying isn't to hop around.
It's not the way to go to the grocery store, you know?
-If you go to a very fundamental level of the mind, you can ultimately move the body.
So if you look at what's happening in people's brains during yogic flying,
just before they take off, there is a huge change.
Do you know what motivated the Maharishi to come to Iowa?
Er, the college was for sale.
I'm not sure what I think of this, but I do know that Americans seem to be more open than most
to anything that might bring about self-improvement and there is something wonderful
about the incongruity of yogic flying over the wintry Iowan cornfields.
But I have no time and even less inclination to try it out.
To the North East lies Chicago, but first, I must make a detour
through Indiana and Ohio, to Michigan.
What to do in Indiana?
Well, I've always wanted to ride
in one of these classic big red fire trucks, and in Elkhart, Indiana,
I fulfil that dream, riding up front with fire chief Mike Compton.
I'm going to get a taste of what the choking reality is.
It's a hard job to get these days. We had 240 applicants for eight jobs.
I know when I got hired I got a three-day training in the basics.
I was told, "Follow that guy with the grey hair, keep your mouth shut and do as you're told."
-I spoke to a fireman once and he said, "Oh, yeah, we all love a good blaze."
-And we do.
-It's kinda funny that if you take an engineer,
he wants to prevent a building from collapsing.
You take a fireman, he doesn't always want to prevent a fire, he wants to have a fire.
And that's why you need to weed out the psychologically weird ones who are just a bit too fond of a fire.
I can't see anything.
To be a fireman in the States is to be an authentic American hero,
untainted by corruption, politics and ambition.
After 9/ll, the job became even more glorified and even more desirable.
oh, my, that's awful.
That's just hell.
There's nothing to describe it. You can't see, you can't orientate yourself in any direction.
I do not understand how anybody would voluntarily go into a building like that because
now that I've experienced it, I never want to go anywhere near anything like it again.
Oh, the stench.
The nearly rolling farmland of Ohio.
A lot of states have had songs written about them, Georgia, Texas, California.
They're usually rather romantic and optimistic.
There's a great song written about Ohio.
It's very melancholy and it memorialises...
a sort of turning point in American history, really, when the '60s dream went bad.
Some students at a University in this state,
the town of Kent, part of the State University known as Kent State,
were demonstrating against the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia,
and in came the National Guard, a kind of soldiery of the American Army,
and they shot 13 of them.
Nine were very seriously injured, four killed.
Young students demonstrating on a campus in a university,
shot dead by soldiers of their own country,
and it happened in this innocent-looking farm state.
The great Neil Young wrote a wonderful song about it.
# Gotta get down to it Soldiers are cutting us down
# Should have been done long ago
# What if you knew her And found her dead on the ground
# How can you run when you know? #
We've seen over half the States of America so far.
We've seen mountains and hills and rivers and beautiful cities.
We're here in Detroit, Michigan,
a motor town, Motown, where evidence is all around us
of the industry that changed the world.
Water from the Great Lakes, iron ore from the plains,
coal from the Appalachians and workers from the south and east made Detroit
the industrial furnace of America.
Henry Ford, who started his business here in Dearborn, on the outskirts of Detroit,
could be said to have invented modern America and defined millions of people's lives.
His famous dictum that history is more or less bunk is somewhat at odds with the village
he created next to his factory,
a village full of history pillaged from every corner of the planet.
But people are ever-complicated and contradictory,
which the best machines are not.
The Model T he built here on the first ever mass-production line
is still considered the most successful car ever made.
Simple, effective, elegant, cheap enough to be bought by Ford's own workers -
the Tin Lizzie quite simply transformed the world.
But Ford was not alone in the car business here, and Detroit is home
to the largest car company of all, and Ford's bitterest rival -
General Motors, makers of the Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac brands.
In the stylish tech centre, built by that modernist master Aero Saarinen,
I meet up with John Manoogian, designer for the latest incarnation of the Cadillac.
When I first saw the 1963 Corvette Stingray, I rode my bicycle
into town that day to the Chevrolet dealer and they had a silver Stingray
sitting right in the showroom.
I said, "That's it. I have to be where they designed that car."
-You really wanted this job, didn't you?
-I could taste it.
My father worked for 50 years at the Ford Motor Company.
When it came time for me to quit my job at Ford and come
to General Motors, he was absolutely flabbergasted.
He said, "Why would you ever want to do that?"
So it's a bit like someone from a very strict Catholic family bringing home a Protestant girl.
Actually in some ways, it was probably worse than that.
Now, you've designed a Cadillac...?
-Did you ever dream that...
-My life is complete.
If you were to gaze into your crystal ball,
what would you see motoring being like in another 20 years, say?
I would expect to see smaller cars, probably different power plants.
This country being the way it is, laid out as big as it is,
there's going to be a large segment of the population that says, "I have to have a car."
America needs cars - for the foreseeable future, there's no alternative.
Hell, I'm using one because it's the only way to see the country,
save those moments when I can get a bird's eye view. And what a view.
Chicago, Illinois. The Windy City, second city to New York.
A hard-working, wealthy metropolis,
built on the shores of Lake Michigan and a magnificent hymn to modernism.
Chicago is also home to its very own style of the blues.
And Buddy Guy is their God.
# I'm just tryin' to ease... My weary mind... #
From Jimi Hendrix to the Stones, to Eric Clapton, they've all worshipped at the frets of his guitar.
# If you see me get kind of drunk
# Plee-ea-ase don't pay me no mind... #
But the blues are a dying art form.
Buddy Guy takes me down memory lane,
to the once-thriving working-class south side of the city.
This is the place, the most famous blues club on the south side of Chicago.
At this vacant lot here, another one called
The Juke Box Lounge, that's where I stole my first guitar from, right here.
-Good God, and it's now just wasteland?
With ice on it.
So I used to live around the corner.
I'd leave home to go to Pepper's Lounge but I never made it because every time I would pass a joint
like that I could hear the music playing and I said, "Wow, this sounds so good,
"I've got to go see who this is."
When I walk up on this side of the street, the same thing.
That side, this side. They had blues clubs, I mean everywhere.
I don't normally come down this way no more cos I hate that flashback.
Yeah, it upsets you?
Oh, yeah, you know, sometimes you feel like crying because what happened?
Because people were having so much fun, I mean 24/7.
It saddens me because those days are never coming back.
Some people laugh at the blues, say it's always about being miserable.
What do you think they're about?
When you hear BB King singing, "I've got a sweet little angel,
"I love the way she spreads her wings", that is not miserable.
Entertainment has always been a big part of this city
and while the blues clubs may have passed away,
one institution that has gone from strength to strength, is comedy theatre Second City.
Comedy improvisation could be said to have come of age at this institution.
For half a century some of the greatest and most famous comedians in the world
have started their careers here.
Your girlfriend's in there right now.
-Oh, great, I haven't seen her in a while.
Erm, er... How can I tell this?
Er, lost her clothes.
-Maybe I should wait out here for five minutes.
All right two minutes.
'Oh, dear. What I was most dreading. My turn.'
Will you be offended if I said that you seem to be
in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?
Oh, that makes my boy and girl parts go a little twangy.
You are radiantly lovely.
You do know that, don't you?
What is the sexiest word that comes to you brain right now when you look into my eyes?
'The Wiener Circle is an institution amongst Chicago's acting fraternity.
'Having recovered from the trauma of last night, I am to be initiated.'
Yeah, I'll have a big wiener.
-Three big wieners.
No, definitely no hot pepper, I'm completely homosexual when it comes to hot peppers.
Authentic Chicago experience.
Improvise your way out of that.
Now listen. Second City.
The end of the rainbow for you if you had comedy ambitions?
-The first time I saw the show I wanted to on the stage so bad.
You get hired and you go inside and they show you there's a tape closet
-with the tapes of all the shows that they've ever done and the scripts from all those shows.
And they open it up and you look at the cast list and you're looking at
Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, Gilda Radner in one show, you know.
Dan Castellaneta, used to work here, Homer Simpson.
-The legendary Homer Simpson.
If from the vantage point of my elderly position of a 50-year-old,
if I can offer any advice it is never too late.
-The idea that the door closes and roped off, I'm already 30, nothing's happened.
It's complete nonsense. Actually, almost the reverse is true.
-A lot of stars, George Clooney,
that guy Hugh, the one in House, whatever his name is.
Yeah. He's terrible, right?
He had to wait until his late forties before...
Why do you think it grew up here in Chicago?
Is there something about this place?
The city just happened to be hungry for it.
It's called the Windy City because in the 19th century
they said that the politicians in Chicago were full of hot air.
-Oh, it's windy in that sense?
-The windy person is...
-Windbags, yeah. Blowhards as you call them. Exactly.
They also had the reputation of being the second city.
They were second to New York, all the time.
It's always had that chip on its shoulder
but since it's such a working class town it doesn't mind having a chip.
It's always working, it never rests.
There's yet another sector of the entertainment industry in Chicago
but in a different, how shall I put it, mould.
Oh, my Lord!
-It's real copper.
-Real copper. It's so beautiful.
Oh, here's the big one.
-The big one.
Gold, Mr Bond.
I love its softness, I love its beauty,
I love its colour, but most of all I love its value.
It's the real thing, it's an Oscar.
Well, I never did get my Oscar but I got this instead.
One of the greatest sights on the planet.
The Sears Tower for a long time could proudly call itself the tallest building in the world,
but the economic shifts of the last decades have moved that dubious accolade to the Far East
but who's counting when you have this?
Leaving Illinois on my way to Minnesota,
I head into State number 30, Wisconsin.
So, here we are in Wisconsin.
I think I ought to tell you,
which you may not be able to tell yourselves,
is that it really is very cold.
It's exceptionally cold.
A few hours ago it was -25 degrees Centigrade,
which is jolly cold in anybody's currency and I have proof of it
because I have a bottle of water which I had last night,
left in the cab and as you may be able to see, that is one solid,
completely frozen bottle of water.
It's very pretty though.
It's very Scandinavian around here.
Svenson Motors and things.
Uff da Mart,
Sorenson's Auto Sales.
For most Americans Wisconsin means cheese,
most of it disgustingly bland and fit only for melting over burgers.
But Brenda Jensen is a rarity.
She makes organic ewe's milk cheese.
She has 150 sheep herself,
but she still needs more milk as her successful business expands.
Brenda's desire for unadulterated milk leads her to equally unadulterated Amish neighbours.
The Amish are a Christian Sect who don't believe in mechanical devices,
so don't use cars, tractors, phones or shavers.
They also don't like being filmed but take it from me,
they're very friendly, sweet and not in the least solemn or disapproving.
Come on girls, come on, come on.
Here they go.
-They're very keen to be milked, aren't they?
-We've got all these udders presenting to us.
-We do. Yes, yes.
OK darling, I'm going to have a go.
Excuse me. Oh, Lord.
Come on, look. Ow.
Oops, that's one.
Where's the other one? Oh. Get up.
-Bloody hell. There it goes.
-Push it right up.
There it goes. There's the milk.
Oh my, and that flows up into one of these pipes.
They certainly like to present their lady parts, don't they?
-There's no mistaking. Obviously attractive to a ram.
So many things going on there.
Folds and puckers and oozings.
-Oh, what's going on?
-They've recently had babies, you know.
So they're a little stretched at the moment, darlings, aren't you?
A little slack.
Take your finger.
-Oh, my goodness.
Yeah, just take a break like that.
-Like a milk jelly.
-You can tell this is ready.
Wisconsin. Is it thought of as very much a capital of good dairy farming?
Oh, yes, very much so. Wisconsin is cheese.
I have to say, without wishing to be offensive about America,
but one of the most notable things about America
is that cheese, generally, is appalling.
-It's shocking. You go to even quite a good restaurant and...
-They don't serve it,
and the cheese they melt and put on things is just...
-It's orange and some of it comes out of a can.
-And spray-on cheese, it exists, doesn't it?
So is this like a new movement in America?
It is, it really is.
Artisanal farmstead, natural.
Artisanal, that's a good word.
It is, and very handcrafted.
By mid-Western standards, my next destination,
the twin city conurbation of Minneapolis St Paul,
is bang next door, being only a couple of hours drive away.
The Mississippi. There she is again look, almost frozen solid.
We've hardly left her for 2,500 miles since we met at the mouth
in Louisiana and now ten states later,
we've traced her almost to her source further upstate in Minnesota.
It's even colder up here than it was in Wisconsin,
so there's barely a soul on the streets.
In fact, almost no-one ever braves the air in wintertime
and to get from building to building they have covered catwalks between the buildings called skyways.
It's those practical Scandiwegians again.
PEOPLE SPEAK ASIAN LANGUAGE
But hark, that's not Swedish I hear,
and how odd to be among the Hmong so far from their ancestral homelands,
which were in the opium-growing hills of Laos and Vietnam.
These are the latest and probably most incongruous
in a long line of immigrants to Minnesota.
The Hmong fought alongside America during the Vietnam War
and after that war was lost, most of the Hmong refugees who fled to the US
were re-settled here in Minneapolis.
Today they number some 40,000 and are the largest Hmong community
outside South East Asia with their own State Senator, Mrs Mee Moua.
We came from a village life where people are out and about
and teeming and people walking the streets and you're always bumping into people.
To come into this environment, in the middle of January,
where you don't see human beings for months and months and months,
and the only people you see are your family.
You look outside and don't see anybody. It's like a ghost town.
Soon after the Hmong were moved here,
there was an unusually high number of deaths among their menfolk.
Senator Mee explains.
Many, many Hmong men would go to sleep and just die in their sleep.
They just switched themselves off, almost? They stopped wanting to live?
-It's a kind of suicide.
-Yeah, the light just went out
and the irony is that I have talked to men who have come back.
They would dream that they had wings
and that they were flying, you know, across the oceans.
And they would see the fields and the mountains of Laos.
You know, to go back to the land of their ancestors.
So these people who woke up,
woke up because their wives heard them kind of struggling,
otherwise he was already in Laos.
We started to have Hmong grocery stores,
we had Hmong loan offices and bankers at the local banks.
We had enough people who were versatile in English to be at the law offices and at hospitals.
That has really helped to minimise their sense of helplessness.
So we could have a sense of community.
Leaving the now happier Hmong to their adopted homeland,
I join up with Tim Lesmeister
for a spot of more traditional Minnesotan activity.
Wow. That was fun.
That was a good ride.
Quite icy on the ice!
Right here where we're standing
there's literally thousands of fish below us, ready to be caught.
How thick is that sheet of ice, do you think?
-It's 24 or 26 inches right in there.
-Over two foot.
I usually bring nothing but bad luck to these kinds of enterprise,
but let's see if we can catch something.
You're putting a television camera down there?
I'm putting a camera down here, yes.
And we'll set it up so we can actually watch our lure,
and we'll watch the fish actually swim up.
There's two of them now.
Oh, it's a nice fish too.
OK, come on. OK, here he comes, here he comes.
I think he's going to take it. He's really on top of this one.
-Oh, he swam away.
I'm not ringing the dinner bell for them yet.
So what made Tim and his ancestors settle in this icy land?
The Scandinavians actually came over here looking for a new life,
but when they got to Minnesota, they said, "This is just like home, let's stay here."
And the people in Minnesota tend to be a little quirky.
I suppose you have to be if you're going to be crazy enough to live this far north.
Come on, fishy.
These fish are really negative.
They're toying with us, they know that we want one so bad. If we didn't want a fish...
-Yeah, let's not want one.
-If we didn't want a fish, we would catch a fish.
Actually it would be rather a bore if they bit.
I'd have to turn the reel and bring them up
so I'd much rather you just go away please, bother someone else.
-See how this reverse psychology works.
Ooh, big bass, big bass.
-Big bass, big bass.
Ooh, that would be good.
Big bass. Come on, come on.
Oh, get in there.
-It's a sunfish. Hey, that's a nice one.
-What is he?
-That is a sunfish.
-Yeah, he's a beautiful fish.
Cold. He's ready frozen, virtually.
-Probably the biggest fish ever caught here, would you say?
-Come on, yes it is.
Oops, oh, dear.
-It's the first fish I've caught since I was about ten years old.
I don't want you to think I'm scared of this fish.
Oh, this is a nice one.
-This is a serious fish.
This is really bending the rod.
Ooh, yeah, it's a biggie.
He's up to the hole, he's up, he's up.
Oh, I say!
-That's a pike, isn't it?
-That is a pike.
Yeah. He's absolutely beautiful.
That is a beautiful fish.
I would go so far as to say that is bigger than the fish I just caught.
I think it is. I genuinely think that's bigger than my fish.
I'm guessing it was pretty close, pretty close.
Actually mine goes from there to there, yours goes...
Yeah, yours is just bigger, well done.
-That's a nice big fish, there it goes.
-Off she goes. Wonderful.
I like to see them put back.
That is really good.
These are the spoils.
-Pitting our wits against the mighty sunfish.
-This is brilliant.
It's been quite a journey from the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans,
where the River Mississippi empties itself
in warm, steamy, torrid Louisiana,
right here to fresh, chilly Minnesota,
which is the state where the Mississippi begins.
We've followed music and food.
-That's just ice cracking.
-Oh, that's all right,
I thought it was a leaf rustling. If it's only ice cracking... Get out of here!!
And so we did.
Next week, I shall be travelling
from the glaciers of Montana on the Canadian border,
right down through the High Prairies and Rocky Mountains,
to the arid deserts of Texas on the border with Mexico.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media
Stephen Fry begins his epic 2,000-mile journey up the Mississippi in the sultry, voodoo-soaked streets of New Orleans during its busiest day of the year - Mardi Gras.
He meets a Jewish voodoo priestess, an Iraqi war veteran experiencing flashbacks in the abandoned neighbourhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, down-and-outs not living the American Dream, and takes a tour through Angola, one of America's most notorious prisons.
In the Delta he gets the blues with actor Morgan Freeman at his club in Clarksdale and in Chicago drives guitar legend Buddy Guy round his old stomping grounds on the South Side. Forsaking calmness at the Transcendental Meditation HQ in Iowa, he travels to Motown - Detroit - where he gets to drive in a Model T and the latest Cadillac with its designer, before enjoying the rustic beauty of an Amish farm and learning how to milk a sheep in Wisconsin.
At the river's source in Minnesota he learns how the Hmong refugees, so far from their opium-growing villages in Laos, are adapting to the snowy wastes, before catching his first fish in 40 years on the frozen Lake Minnetonka.