Songs for a South Underwater: Music that Carried People Through the Great 1927 FloodBreaking News
tags: African American history, Southern history, disasters, music, Floods
Sergio Lopez is a cultural critic and historian as well as City Council-member for Campbell, California. A proud first-generation American and child of immigrants, he graduated Yale University and currently studies at Duke Divinity School. His work has appeared in TIME, Teen Vogue, America, National Catholic Reporter, Sojourners, and more. His writing can be found at sergio-lopez.com
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?
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