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When The Levee Breaks: Ripples Of The Great Flood

A levee on the Mississippi River in Louisiana during the Great Flood of 1927. (Getty Images)

Along the mighty Mississippi River, rising waters carry musical echoes of the river's long history of floods. Many of those sonic tributaries reach back to perhaps the worst one in U.S. history: the Great Flood of 1927. That catastrophe shaped how future generations of farmers, families and even governments would cope with floods.

The history of the 1927 flood can be found in textbooks, but it comes to life in music. In an interview with Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Mississippi, All Things Considered host Michele Norris plays him Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere, Part 1" from 1929.

"This song is a documentary about the flood," Brown says. "In Part 1, he includes the lyrics, 'I would go to the hill country, but they got me barred.' And the reason he says that is that he'd like to get out of the Delta and find higher ground, but he's not allowed to. Many of the African-Americans weren't allowed to leave and were forced to stay, although the white citizens were typically allowed to leave."

An Act Of God

The Great Flood meant great suffering and misery for blacks up and down the Mississippi River. But many also thought of the flood as a harbinger of hope.

"African-Americans viewed the flood as an act of God that liberated them," Brown says. "In the 1920s, the vast majority of that black population made their living by sharecropping. Everybody got by on credit. The flood made it obvious that there was not going to be a crop during that year, so they were not facing one year of barely breaking even or being able to pay off debt, but two full years. Some people turned the whole story on its head and said that the Lord had washed away the debt and liberated the black sharecroppers to move on to other employment. Many of them did. They left the Delta and participated in the Great Migration and headed north and went to Chicago or Detroit or some other metropolitan area and sought new employment."

The flood inspired not only the blues, but also other forms of roots music.

"Ethnomusicologists tell us that there were about two dozen blues songs that were written specifically about the flood in the couple years that immediately followed it," Brown says. "There was probably an equivalent number of gospel songs. And then some of those songs have been re-presented by more recent artists, so the ripples of the flood continue to be with us."

'They're Trying To Wash Us Away'

Charley Patton influenced musicians for decades to come. More than 70 years later, Patton's music about the Great Flood received a tribute from a musician who is legendary in his own right: Bob Dylan released "High Water (For Charley Patton)" in 2001. The rhythm of the music sounds like the constant churn of unrelenting water, a signature Patton sound.

Dylan paid tribute to another song from the Great Flood: 1929's "When the Levee Breaks," by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. The song was also covered by Led Zeppelin in 1971 with the same words, but the band completely rebuilt the musical structure.

When these sentiments re-emerge, it's like old wine in a new bottle. When Randy Newman wrote "Louisiana 1927" in 1974, he reached back to the Great Flood.

"[Newman] says, 'They're trying to wash us away,' " Brown says. "And the reason he says that is that in 1927, the political elite decided that to save New Orleans, they would blow up the levee and basically destroy St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish. The people who lived there who were flooded out after the levee was blown were never compensated for their loss. They were washed away. 'They're trying to wash us away.' "

For Brown, Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" remains the ultimate flood song. He says it has a "plaintive nature to it that if it keeps on raining, the levee's gonna break; there's nothing you can do about it."

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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.

NORRIS: Why?

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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