Friday, April 2, 2010

Wake of the Flood: Louisiana,1927

Louisiana, 1927
Before the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the worst flood of the Mississippi River took place on Good Friday, April 15, 1927. When the levee broke, just above Clarksdale, water inundated the state. New Orleans in particular was hit with 14 inches of rain in 24 hours, although the city itself survived. What was most significant about the calamity was the transformative effect it had on the culture of Louisiana.

Racial strife became exacerbated when the flood caused over 300,000 blacks to live in refugee camps for many months. Ultimately, hundreds of thousands headed North. It also didn’t help matters that in the late twenties, Louisiana was a compromised state mortgaged to Standard Oil and under the boot of the Old Bourbons, the wealthy city fathers who controlled the political fortune of the Big Easy. Singer/songwriter Randy Newman who spent much of his early childhood in New Orleans believed that the Bourbons had a hand in bringing about the catastrophe. “The Bosses in New Orleans probably were behind the decision to let it flood up there, diverting the water away from their city,” he explained. “Anyway, the cotton fields were wiped out, changing America forever, disemploying hundreds of thousands of black field workers, most of whom held executive positions in the cotton industry, meaning that they were permitted to wear gloves while picking.” It also meant they were forced out of the South. “They all moved North and were greeted with open arms right across America,” Newman added sarcastically.

Charley Patton
The flood aroused such popular interest that there was no shortage of songs depicting the tragedy, and not surprisingly, most of them were rooted in the blues. They included Bessie Smith’s “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues,” Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” (which Led Zeppelin would cover years later, amplified to the pitch of an apocalypse) and Vernon Dalhart’s “The Mississippi Flood.” One of the strongest recordings, “High Water Everywhere,” was by Charley Patton. Described at one time as the father of the Mississippi Delta blues, Patton generally straddled the fence between sacred and blues music. He performed blues under the pseudonym “The Masked Marvel,” while when he sang church music he became Elder J.J. Hadley. In his blues, Patton developed a pivotal style of whooping and hollering, as if he were gleefully sharing episodes of lewd abandon and drunken revelry. But in “High Water Everywhere,” recorded in two parts in 1929, Patton isn’t in much of a party mood. He performs the song like an urgent dispatch of breaking news, shouting over his guitar lines as if afraid that he could be cut short any second.

“High Water Everywhere” had such lasting power that Bob Dylan would answer Patton’s urgent appeal, some seventy-two years later, in the song "High Water (For Charley Patton)" from the album "Love and Theft" (ironically, hitting the streets on 9/11, inadvertently invoking the calamity of that day). In typical fashion, Dylan presents a masked ball of American musical history featuring archetypal blues figures like Big Joe Turner, as he casually drops quotes from Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.” We soon hear the faint echo of Clarence Ashley’s forbidding “The Coo Coo Bird” recorded by Ashley two years after the flood and carrying within it a symbol of homelessness – the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nest of others. Somehow, in the middle of this revelatory jamboree, in which Dylan captures a number of American artists and their work, he creates his own formidable image that seizes forcefully on the calamitous event (“High water risin’ six inches ‘bove my head/Coffins droppin’ in the street like balloons made out of lead”).

Randy Newman
However memorable these other recorded accounts are, Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” transcends them all. Released as part of the album, Good Old Boys (1974), it's a record that takes full stock of the contemporary South while rooting itself in the era of Huey Long (and issued just as President Richard Nixon was experiencing his downfall). “Louisiana, 1927” has a majestic emotional sweep wherein Newman digs deep beneath the tragic consequences of the flood and plunges us into the wounded soul of the South.

His performance expresses both outrage and empathy, yet it also gives us a sense of why the roots of the South are so durable. “Louisiana, 1927” may, on one level, be simply revealing the details of that horrible day, but those details are charged with a deeper metaphorical meaning – that the transgressions of the South, and the unresolved issues emanating from the Civil War, have invited this calamity. The winds (significantly from the North) dramatically change and transform the countryside until the town of Evangeline has six feet of water flowing in its streets. “There’s a feeling down there, definitely, of anti-Yankee animus toward the North, toward government, toward people trying to tell them what to do,” Newman once told the late Timothy White. “And that’s what it’s about to me.”

“Louisiana, 1927” opens with an elegiac string section worthy of one of Randy’s uncle Alfred Newman’s finer film scores. Throughout the song, we are never distanced from the pain in the material; Newman wants us to feel the tidal pull of the song’s power. He would again remind us of that tidal pull when he performed the song in 2005, after Katrina, giving the song yet another mournful dimension.

You can search out and find all these songs posted on YouTube.

Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927"

Bob Dylan's "High Water (For Charley Patton)

Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere"
Part One:
Part Two:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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