The back water done rolled lord, and tumbled, drove me down the line
The back water done rolled and tumbled, drove poor Charley down the line
— Charley Patton, "High Water Everywhere #1"
I gotta bring the hood back after Katrina
Weezy F Baby, now the F is for FEMA
— Lil Wayne, "Feel Me"
Almost 100 years ago, the United States saw one of the worst flood events in its history. In spring of 1927, unprecedented rains fed a swollen Mississippi River, causing widespread levee failure from Indiana all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Some 27,000 square miles were flooded. Hundreds died, and 700,000 people were displaced from their homes. The impact of the disaster fell disproportionately among the poorest Black Americans of the Delta region. Stranded in flood zones, they were left to fend for themselves without food, exposed to the bitter elements.
In the wake of callous and indifferent government response to the devastation facing them, Black musicians from the Delta produced their own deluge: An outpouring of songs testifying to the destruction wrought up and down the Mississippi. Some songs were eyewitness accounts, some secondhand, but nearly all were connected to the pain they described. Blues singers, capturing not just the events but the emotion behind them, penned perhaps the truest record of that era's deadly flood.
The power of these flood records was understood both by audiences of the day and generations of musicians after, from Bob Dylan to Beyoncé. But while blues singers initially created these songs in part as ways of testifying and remembering, subsequent musicians have appropriated, sampled, and remixed the suffering of Southern Black communities into new works of art, divorcing the lyrics from the historical events which gave birth to them. Elegiac chronicles of collective physical crisis became the stuff of music legend, removed from their true history. Still, the melodies remain.
Nearly a century after the flood, hurricanes from Katrina through Ida continue to leave their own indelible, mud-stained mark on popular culture and the Southern landscape. Lil Wayne, Big Krit, Jay Electronica, and other Southern rappers from cities devastated by horrific storms have continued to respond with songs of grief and anger, just as gravel-voiced Charley Patton and his 1920s counterparts did. But will these songs be remembered anymore than their predecessors' when the pain Black folks faced during the Great Flood of 1927 has long receded from national memory—like floodwaters after a storm?
I rowed a boat across this river, water was rough as it could be
I hear the women and children screamin', "Ooh-hoo, please save poor me!"
— Casey Bill Weldon, "Flood Water Blues No. 1"
When the water wouldn't stop coming, they decided to build an ark. It was May of 1927, and the waters of the Mississippi were steadily rising. An all-Black community in Northeast Arkansas knew that their region, located in the lowlands around the Mississippi, would soon be inundated.
It was their pastor who urged them to follow Noah's example and rapidly build an ark, with room enough for themselves, their belongings, and even livestock—"chickens, dogs, cats, and two mules." When the ark was completed, they waited for the flood, not in lament but in rejoicing, led in worship by the parson.
But when the flood finally came, the ark failed to float. Instead, water poured into the vessel, soon reaching a foot and a half high.
Eventually, a small group exited and made for a nearby embankment—from which position they urged those still in the ark to follow suit. Once evacuated, they took refuge in a series of box cars, the Mobile News reported at the time, finally safe from the flood—for the time being.
Others weren't so lucky. Newspapers in the spring of 1927 recorded widespread inundation all the way up to Illinois. States all up and down the Mississippi River flooded. After a main levee broke, half of Arkansas was said to be underwater. Differences in population and economic size make modern day comparisons difficult, but to take just one example: The town of Clarendon, Arkansas, home to 3,000 souls, was practically swept away the night of April 20, 1927. At around 1:30 in the morning, when the levee gave way, the town was underwater within 10 minutes. Residents took shelter wherever they could—hilltops, the second stories of homes, and in the courthouse, where they endured horrible scraping sounds during the night as houseboats were set adrift.
It was poor whites and Black people who paid the price for the destruction of the levees. As The Monroe Star reported: "[D]ozens of negroes and whites in the poorer sections of town had not escaped, because they were unable to leave their homes, or they believed the levee would hold. Cries and screams were heard from those sections of town." Numbers and figures alone could never do justice to the scale of suffering—which was perhaps why, soon, Black musicians began setting down words to music.
"Southern Flood Blues," "Flood Water Blues," "When the Levee Breaks," "High Water Everywhere," "Floating Bridge." The Black artists who recorded these songs—many of them hits—included the husky-voiced Charley Patton, the suave and sophisticated Big Bill Broonzy, the mysterious Mattie Delaney, and megastar Bessie Smith. Songwriting styles ranged from eyewitness accounts, to those making use of biblical imagery of Noah and the flood, to surrealist descriptions to make sense of inexplicable events. Singer Casey Bill Weldon, for example, attested to sights which seemed out of the realm of ordinary human experience: "I'm gonna tell you people the strangest thing I ever seen. It was cats and dogs on housetops, ooh-hoo, floatin' down the stream." "Now I never will forget that floating bridge," recalled Sleepy John Estes, recounting a tale in which he was eventually rescued from the waters and dried off, only to find that he "couldn't hear nothin' but muddy water runnin' through my head."
Through their music, these artists of the 1920s and '30s also captured the sense of physical dislocation caused by the flood, with damage that spanned state lines—sweeping in with a wild violence that left its victims confused and geographically adrift. Singer Barbecue Bob, in "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues," sang:
Some singers expressed anger at the injustice that befell them, as when Bessie Smith bemoaned in "Homeless Blues:" "Oh, you know I'm homeless, homeless, might as well be dead / Hungry and disgusted, no place to lay my head." And many blues songs documented the discriminatory impacts on Black victims of the flood, as when Charley Patton lamented in "High Water Everywhere," "I would go to the hill country, but they got me barred." Beyoncé took up similar themes in her music video for Formation, which features New Orleans and clear references to Katrina as a through-line. The militarization of relief efforts is represented by a montage of flooded homes and a floating cop car the singer poses atop before it ultimately sinks in one of the final scenes.
One item in the Biloxi Daily Herald in late April backed up Patton's claim to being "barred" from traveling where he wished, as the paper reported:
Without food since Thursday, exposed to the elements with scant clothing, several hundred negro farm laborers face starvation unless they are removed from house tops and trees at Scott, Miss[issippi] … [H]undreds of negroes were [additionally] marooned on levees in the vicinity.
Out of Greenville came a report in the Sedalia Capital that "estimated … more than 100 negroes had been drowned in the immediate vicinity of Spot's Landing break 18 miles north of the city." Meanwhile, claims of looting by Black Americans, reported in the Macon Chronicle-Herald, were used to impose a curfew. All of these images would be repeated in the next century, from images of Black folk stranded on rooftops after Katrina, to racially charged accusations of looting following Ida, and many more.
Even in the relief camps, which were set up to offer respite and shelter, Black Americans—largely poor sharecroppers—faced abuses. Disease was rampant, as reported even then by the Fayetteville Daily Democrat. The PBS documentary Fatal Flood highlights how Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, recruited Robert Moton, a prominent Black political leader and then-principal of the Tuskegee Institute, to chair the Colored Advisory Commission to report on the camps in an attempt to assuage these concerns.
Moton wrote and filed his findings diligently, and in his second report from the Commission, he documented the conditions in the camps: Flood relief was going to landlords instead of to the sharecroppers; refugees were being pushed out of the camps prematurely and sent back to the plantations; and the Red Cross workers seemed to be working with the landlords and plantation owners to enforce these abuses. (Later reports were even worse, stating that the National Guard forced workers to repair the levees under threat of bayonets).
Fearing for the viability of his presidential aspiration, Hoover pressured Moton to suppress the report, promising that he would give land to the sharecroppers and Moton a prominent role in the administration in exchange for his silence. Instead, once elected, Hoover turned his back on the Black community and his promises. The resulting distrust of federal promises found expression eighty years later during Katrina—perhaps more memorably when Kanye West blurted out that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people"—and, later, other disasters, when the federal government was seen to fail to act or respond.
But 100 years ago, Black flood victims were hard pressed to vocalize the terrible conditions they faced out of fear of retaliatory violence. The Moton report cites one sympathetic worker:
"The local Red Cross official said that she knew this condition was going on, but that she could not get any of the colored people themselves to testify. Obviously, the colored people who have for so many years lived in fear of ill treatment as a result of the plantation system will not tell except where they think a friend will help. They are unwilling to give their names in making such reports, for as they say, their lives would be in danger."
When the reporting of truth is suppressed, as it was with the second Moton report, Black creators have turned to art to document their experiences and those of their community. Amplified and refracted through the artist's lens, these works transmitted the gravity of the cultural trauma over the airways to Black audiences who hungered for them, and who represented a burgeoning profitable market for the music industry.
These songs' commercial success is a testament to their appeal: Listeners could hear their own experiences sung back to them, as well as be entertained. And as the march of history drummed steadily onward, the songs only increased in poignancy, adding new layers of meaning—even as they became increasingly detached in the public imagination from their historical basis.
High water risin'—risin' night and day
All the gold and silver are being stolen away
— Bob Dylan, "High Water (For Charley Patton)"
The blurring of the line between historical events and their artistic recountings began early on. Many of the songs which described the events of 1927, for example, were actually first recorded during the Depression, potentially suggesting that the tales of displacement, discrimination, and economic misery in flood records like Patton's "High Water Rising" had already taken on increased social relevance within a few short years. Increasingly, as these accounts of the Flood of 1927 were told and retold, the language and events became removed from its literal historic meaning. Rob Cooper recorded a song in 1935, "Mississippi Flood Blues," which recounted the events of the flood but recontextualized the experience: "Love is like this Depression," he lamented, "it lingers on and on."
As the flood faded from recent memory, its imagery was invoked by a new generation of blues musicians. The displacement in the Delta after the Flood helped drive the movement of former sharecroppers into urban centers. This next generation of blues artists included famous musicians like Muddy Waters, who moved from the Delta to Chicago to become a full-time musician and decades later recorded the song "Flood."
During the 1960s and 1970s, white rock and rollers too turned to the real events of 1927, and began transforming the language and imagery of these songs into commentary on their own tumultuous times. Bob Dylan penned a song in the '60s, "Crash on the Levee," which became part of the legendary "basement tapes." Rock writer Greil Marcus canonized these recordings, celebrating them as a document of "the old, weird America." When Marcus listened, he imagined that the white Dylan could have been present at the flood itself, but said nothing of the real world events—and Black pain—at these songs' core.
In 2001, Dylan released "High Water (For Charley Patton)" on his album "Love and Theft." The title was a tip of the hat, a tribute, recalling the specific historical events of the Great Flood. He harkened back to some of the original blues singers, while also using them as a jumping off point for a surrealist narrative: "Coffins droppin' in the street, like balloons made out of lead," he attests. Despite the absurdist lyrics, it's a powerful track that draws its power from the experiences of Black musicians like Patton and Joe Turner—at once a considered tribute and a casual erasure. "Love and Theft" won a Grammy and topped the year-end critics' lists of multiple publications. As for the song's namesake, Charley Patton died at around the age of 40 from a heart condition. No newspapers reported his death.
Contemporary post-Katrina songs illustrate the complexities of turning mass trauma into individual art—especially when those penning the songs were not directly impacted. In "Georgia… Bush," Lil Wayne raps: "The white people smiling like everythin' cool. / But I know people that died in that pool." The NOLA native, and other artists for whom Katrina struck close to home, used art to memorialize; as a call to action, and an expression of grief and anger and unfairness. On the other hand, Kanye West, who grew up in Chicago, publicly expressed outrage on behalf of the plight of the Black folks affected by Katrina, yet his own work was emblematic of the ways in which the legacy of Katrina—and Black pain—became casually subsumed into popular culture. On "Flashing Lights," from 2007's Graduation, West raps:
Feelin' like Katrina with no FEMA
Like Martin with no Gina
Like a flight with no Visa
— Kanye West, "Flashing Lights"
Just two years removed from Katrina's landfall, the storm had already become one of a trio of hip-hop stock images, an analogy casually rattled off the way a rapper might invoke Michael Jordan to call themselves the Greatest Of All Time.
Which brings us, in a strange way, back to the Great Flood of 1927. Arguably the single most lasting example of the flood songs' direct legacy on popular culture is a monster of a rock song: Led Zeppelin's 1972 cover of Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks." Guitarist Jimmy Page removes the song from its historical context, its feeling of oppressive, impending doom instead turned into a metaphor for sexual obsession. John Bonham's drums in "When The Levee Breaks" eventually became one of the most sampled breaks in history, used by Dr. Dre, the Beastie Boys, Ice-T, and hundreds more. And with each new iteration, the tracks became further and further removed from the plaintive story of desolation which Memphis Minnie penned. Zeppelin and others used this song to climb to artistic and monetary heights, while musicians like Minnie and the communities they come from ended up out in the rain.
It was fifty men and children come to sink and drown
Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown
— Charley Patton, "High Water Everywhere #2"
People swallowing water and going under, sinking under forever, into a slow oblivion. The loss of consciousness and the gradual leaving behind of self—sometimes gentle, sometimes violent.
I imagined that this is what it's like to remember, even while at the same time forgetting; both forgetting and being forgotten, over and over and over again.
Now, when I was going down, I throwed up my hands
Please, take me on dry land
—Sleepy John Estes "Floating Bridge"