Singing the Blues about 1927's Delta Floods

Noah Adams speaks with University of Memphis musicologist David Evans about songs inspired by the Mississippi Delta floods of 1927. We listen to Lonnie Johnson's "Broken Levee Blues" and Charlie Patton's "High Water Everywhere."

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(Soundbite of "Broken Levee Blues")

NOAH ADAMS, host:

It has been said about natural disasters that the rich people write the history and the poor people write the songs. Much of the truth about the 1927 flood along the Mississippi delta can be found in the blues.

(Soundbite of "Broken Levee Blues")

Mr. LONNIE JOHNSON: (Singing) They want me to work on the levee. I had to leave my home.

ADAMS: That is Lonnie Johnson singing "Broken Levee Blues." He was just one of many blues musicians who sang about the '27 flood. Musicologist David Evans at the University of Memphis has written an article about the music that came out of that disaster.

Tell us, please, about Lonnie Johnson. He was the first to record a song directly connected with the 1927 flood there in Mississippi.

Professor DAVID EVANS (Musicologist, University of Memphis): Right, just a few days after the main levee break north of Greenville, Mississippi. He was a prolific recording artist and perhaps had a studio date already scheduled. He recorded "Broken Levee Blues" and then also did a cover of Missy Smith's song "Back Water Blues," which had actually been recorded before the big flood of 1927.

ADAMS: When you go through all these lyrics of all these tunes, do you find that there's a hidden protest here, or is it really sort of God's will and these are the blues and this is high water?

Prof. EVANS: Well, a lot of the blues just dramatized personal experience. Some of the singers did actually live through the flood. There are elements of protest and anger. Sometimes, of course, they come out simply in the singing style--the rough, raw voice of Charlie Patton. He sounds like he's in a rage. And sometimes they come out in the lyrics. One has to keep in mind that these records were made for companies that were owned by and run by whites. It would have been a little bit dangerous to come out and protest overtly, so the protest often is between the lines and sometimes it requires a bit of interpretation. But it's definitely there.

ADAMS: You write in your article, `As the floodwaters rose in April, blacks were ordered by armed whites to work on the levees while white families fled.'

Prof. EVANS: Yes, this is documented in newspaper accounts, especially in the black press, papers like the Chicago Defender. When Charlie Patton sings, `I would go to the hill country but they got me barred,' quite clearly he's referring to the Greenville levee, which served much like the Superdome did in the recent flood as this place where black people were just more or less herded into and they were not allowed to leave. And when the floodwaters receded, they were remanded to the custody of the landowners that they were sharecroppers for. They couldn't go where they wanted to.

(Soundbite of "High Water Everywhere")

Mr. CHARLIE PATTON (Blues Musician): (Singing) I would go to the hilly country, but they got me barred.

ADAMS: David Evans is the author of the forthcoming article High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, talking with us from the studios of WKNO in Memphis, Tennessee.

Thank you, Professor Evans.

Prof. EVANS: It was a pleasure.

(Soundbite of "High Water Everywhere")

Mr. PATTON: (Singing) ...where, yeah. I would go down to Rosedale, but they tell me there's water there. Now the water now, Mama, done took Charlie's town.

ADAMS: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from slate.com. I'm Noah Adams.

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