The Great Flood of 1927 was a landmark moment in American history, and in music history. The flooding of the Mississippi River left a trail of loss and damage through at least ten states, but when the waters receded, the flood’s impact remained. Among the results of the Great Flood: the way we now build levees and control waterways; the political movement of African-Americans from the Republican to the Democratic Party; the physical movement of African-Americans up the Mississippi to Kansas City, then Chicago, and beyond; and the resulting collision of Southern blues with the first electric guitars, which would eventually lead to rock 'n' roll.
Musicians began responding to the Great Flood while it was actually happening. And almost nine decades later, artists are still responding to this event, including filmmaker Bill Morrison and guitarist-composer Bill Frisell -- they’ve collaborated on the new documentary The Great Flood. Morrison’s films are usually inventive, phantasmagorical affairs, built on decaying silent film stock; here he bases his work on archival documentary footage from 1927, and Frisell provides a score that’s full of his eclectic take on Americana, jazz, and contemporary music. The result is a meditation on the American landscape, on loss, and on consequences -- whether intended or not.
In the conversation above, Morrison talks about his film and shares some songs new and old inspired by the flood. But below, we've got even more songs about the event -- and so we present our Damp Dozen: Twelve Great Songs About The Great Flood.
The Great Flood opens a one-week run at NY’s IFC Center on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
Bill Frisell’s score for The Great Flood now joins a long and pretty damn righteous list of songs inspired by the historic event. Here's even more:
Bessie Smith, "Backwater Blues"
The great blues singer actually recorded this before the Mississippi flooded. Filmmaker Bill Morrison explains that the months leading up the Great Flood featured a series of smaller, precursor floods, and this one is about the Cumberland River flood of late 1926. But it arrived on the scene at exactly the right time and is a harrowing depiction of the flood’s impact.
Barbecue Bob, "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”
Actually recorded here in New York in 1927 while the flooding was going on back home in Mississippi, this is the blues as reportage. It sold crisply, and inspired Barbecue Bob to release a followup the next year called “Mississippi Low Levee Blues.”
Charlie Patton, “High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 and 2”
The legendary bluesman recorded a two-part song that takes us on a survey of the flood’s devastation, but also provides a different kind of survey -- of blues rhythms and licks. It also inspired this next effort.
Bob Dylan, “High Water (For Charlie Patton)”
From his album Love And Theft, this is a loving tribute (and perhaps a bit of musical theft) to Charlie Patton’s song from 80 years earlier.
Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, “When the Levee Breaks”
The original version of the song most associated with the Great Flood. This wife-and-husband team would provide the inspiration for one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits.
Led Zeppelin – “When the Levee Breaks”
This extended, stomping version of the song became the theme music for Air America’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and got a second life on the radio in the wake of that 2005 disaster.
Yat-Kha, “When The Levee Breaks”
Just for fun, check out this Tuvan band’s version of the song, featuring the impossibly deep and overtone-rich voice of Albert Kuvezin. He doesn’t quite nail the English language but his voice is just amazing.
Terence Blanchard, “Ghost of 1927”
From his album A Tale Of God’s Will: Requiem For Katrina this is another song that draws connections between the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina.
Big Bill Broonzy, “Southern Flood Blues”
Recorded in the 60s by the veteran American folk/blues singer and guitarist.
Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Rising High Water Blues”
Jefferson’s gospel wail comes in handy in this spirited cry about the devastation wreaked by the Great Flood.
Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”
The “wash us away” line doesn’t necessarily refer to the waters of the river; elements of racism certainly affected how different areas were treated… check out Bill Morrison’s description of the dynamiting of the black community of Poydras in tonight’s show. Newman performed this song, naturally, in a Katrina relief concert here in New York with both the New York and New Orleans Philharmonics.
Zachary Richard, “Big River”
A big part of the Cajun revival of the 1970's and '80s, Richard is best-known for high-octane, Francophone songs. This is an English-language ballad.
Lonnie Johnson, “Broken Levee Blues”
Another old-time bluesman remembers The Great Flood.
Eric Bibb, “Flood Water”
Contemporary American bluesmen also remember the Great Flood -- even this one, who now lives in Helsinki, Finland.