Another Flood That Gave Us The 'Broken Levee Blues'

Most people who live along the Mississippi today weren't around to see the great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but it is the flood that they grew up hearing about. Host Scott Simon recounts the story and the Lonnie Johnson song it inspired.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Most people who live along the Mississippi today weren't around to see the great Mississippi flood of 1927, but its the flood they sure grew up hearing about 27,000 square miles were inundated, 130,000 homes were destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. In some spots, the Mississippi River swelled to be 80 miles wide.

(Soundbite of song, Broken Levee Blues)

SIMON: The flood of 27 was immortalized in literature and music, including this tune by blues great Lonnie Johnson.

(Soundbite of song, Broken Levee Blues)

Mr. LONNIE JOHNSON (Blues and jazz singer, guitarist and songwriter): (Singing) I wants to go back to Helena, the high waters got me bogged. I wants to go back to Helena, the high waters got me bogged. I woke up early this mornin', high water all in my backyard.

SIMON: Lonnie Johnson was a prolific recording artist. He just may have had a studio session already booked, but it was just a few days after the main levee broke north of Greenville, Mississippi in 1927 that he first recorded Broken Levee Blues. Bluesmen also covered Bessie Smith's Backwater Blues, that she released just prior to the 27 flood. Those two songs went on to become anthems for their time.

(Soundbite of songs, Backwater Blues)

Ms. BESSIE SMITH (Blues singer): (Singing) When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night. When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night, then trouble's takin' place in the lowlands at night.

SIMON: Bessie Smith, singing Backwater Blues, Lonnie Johnsons Broken Levee Blues about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

(Soundbite of songs, Backwater Blues)

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I woke up this mornin', can't even get out of my door. There's enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she want to go. Then they rowed a little boat about five miles 'cross the pond. Then they rowed a little boat about five miles 'cross the pond. I packed all my clothes, throwed them in...

SIMON: And youre listening to NPR News.

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