Along the mighty Mississippi, rising waters carry echoes of the river's repeated history of floods. And many of those historic tributaries reach back to perhaps the worst flood in U.S. history - the Great Flood of 1927. That catastrophic flood shaped how future generations of farmers, families and even the government would cope with the future floods.

The history of the 1927 flood can be found in textbooks, but it comes to life in music. And here to explain is Luther Brown of Delta State University in Mississippi. He's the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. Welcome to the program.

Professor LUTHER BROWN (Delta State University): Well, thank you very much.

NORRIS: I want to begin right away with some of this music and I think we should start perhaps with Charlie Patton. He's been called the Father of the Delta Blues. And he sung in great detail about that great flood.

(Soundbite of song, "High Water Everywhere, Part 1")

Mr. CHARLIE PATTON (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Lord, the whole round country. Lord, river has overflowed. Lord, the whole round country, man, is overflowed.

NORRIS: The whole round country, man, is overflowed. Tell us about that song.

Prof. BROWN: This song is somewhat of a documentary of the flood. This is "High Water Everywhere, Part 1." He did two parts. And in Part 1, he includes the lyrics that we just heard where he says: I would go to the hill country, but they got me barred.

And the reason he says that is he'd like to get out of the Delta and find higher ground, but he's not allowed to. And many of the African-Americans weren't allowed to leave and were forced to stay, although the white citizens typically were allowed to leave.

NORRIS: The Great Flood meant great suffering and misery for blacks up and down the Mississippi. But they also, as I understand this, saw the flood as a harbinger of hope, and that is so interesting. How is that, that they looked to this disaster and saw in it hope for a better future?

Prof. BROWN: In the 1920s, the vast majority of that black population made their living by sharecropping. And the flood made it obvious that there was not going to be a crop during that year, so they were facing not just one year of barely breaking even or even being able to pay off debt. So some people turned the whole story on its head and said the Lord had liberated the black sharecropper to move on to other employment. And many of them did.

They left the Delta and they participated in the Great Migration, headed north and went to Chicago, or Detroit, or some other metropolitan area and sought new employment.

NORRIS: Well, let's look ahead. Charlie Patton, for instance, influenced musicians for years to come. More than 70 years later, Charlie Patton's music about the Great Flood received a tribute of sorts from a musician who's legendary in his own right. And I think you know who I'm talking about.

Prof. BROWN: You're probably referring to Bob Dylan.

NORRIS: Yes, sir.

Prof. BROWN: His tribute to Charlie Patton was "High Water (For Charley Patton)" in 2001.

(Soundbite of song, "High Water For Charley Patton")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) High water rising, six inches above my head. Coffins dropping in the street like balloons made out of lead. When I pulled into Vicksburg, don't know what I'm going to do. Don't reach out to me, she said, can't you see I'm drowning too.

NORRIS: What you hear in that is a Charlie Patton signature, where the rhythm of the music just sounds like the constant churn of water that is unrelenting.

Before we go on, let's listen to a bit more music.

(Soundbite of song "When The Levee Breaks")

Mr. KANSAS JOE McCOY: (Singing) If it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break. If it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break. And the water is going to come, I have no place to stay.

(Soundbite of song "When The Levee Breaks")

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Lead Singer, Led Zeppelin): (Singing) If it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break. When the levee breaks, have no place to stay.

Mr. BROWN: The original song was written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, her husband at the time, under the title "When the Levee Breaks." And it was written specifically about the flood of 1927. And then it was covered by Led Zeppelin, who used pretty much the same lyrics but completely redid the structure of the song, of course, and used their own rhythm.

NORRIS: You know, when these sentiments re-emerge, it's like old wine in a new bottle. That might be said of Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927." He wrote it actually in 1974, but it again reached back and paid tribute to the great flood of 1927.

(Soundbite of song "Louisiana 1927")

Mr. RANDY NEWMAN (Singer): (Singing) Louisiana, Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away.

Mr. BROWN: He says they're trying to wash us away. And the reason he says that is in 1927, the political elite decided that to save New Orleans, they would blow up the levee and basically destroy St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parish. And the people who lived there, who were flooded out after the levee was blown, were never compensated for their loss. They were just washed away. They're trying to wash us away, as he says.

NORRIS: If the human voice best captures the heartbreak of rising waters, whose voice does that best? Whose voice do you turn to in these times?

Mr. BROWN: This is just me personally, but I think Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" is sort of the ultimate flood song to me.


Mr. BROWN: I don't know. It just has a plaintive nature to it that if it keeps on raining, the levee's going to break. There's nothing you can do about it.

NORRIS: Luther Brown, thank you very much.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Luther Brown is with Delta State University in Mississippi. He's the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from