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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
II/ Naming, voicing

Representing Environmental Emergency as Social Emergency: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in Blues Songs from Louisiana and Mississippi

Stéphanie DENÈVE


La grande crue de 1927 est la plus grande catastrophe environnementale de l’histoire américaine. Au début du XXème siècle, les inondations du Mississippi empiraient à mesure que la construction des digues avançait, à une époque où le développement des plantations industrielles nécessitait l’exploitation et le contrôle brutaux des ressources naturelles et humaines. Alors que les élites locales et fédérales déclaraient la guerre au Mississippi et à leur main-d'œuvre noire, comment les habitants de cette région ont-ils vécu, interprété et représenté la crue de 1927 ? La plupart d'entre eux n’avaient pas accès à l’écrit, si bien que les chercheurs doivent se tourner vers leurs chansons, de blues notamment, pour répondre à ces questions.
Le présent article explique que le sort des Noirs dans le Sud était inséparable de celui de l’environnement naturel et que les chanteurs de blues représentaient cet environnement comme une présence active dans leur vie et l’utilisaient comme un réservoir de métaphores de leur condition. Dans leurs chansons, ils décrivirent comment ils percevaient leurs interactions avec le fleuve, dénoncèrent le traitement réservé aux réfugiés environnementaux noirs et sensibilisèrent leur public à un problème aussi brûlant aujourd’hui qu’alors, l’injustice environnementale, d’une manière qui semblait toujours pertinente aux victimes de l’ouragan Katrina un siècle plus tard.

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1The lower Mississippi basin is known for the environmental disasters that have affected it throughout history. Many of those that occurred in the early 20th century were already in great part human-made, especially the Mississippi floods. These floods worsened as the levee system progressed, at a time when the development of industrial plantations required the brutal exploitation and control of natural and human resources, in a region that, “[u]nder nature’s scenario, [...] would be covered – with fresh sediments as well as water” (McPhee 57), part of the year. The Great 1927 Flood remains the greatest environmental disaster in US history, by its “geographical scope, [the] number of people killed, injured, and left homeless, [the] loss of property, [the] duration of the event and its long-term impact” (Evans 3). While local elites and federal authorities declared war on the Mississippi River, how did the mostly African-American inhabitants of Louisiana and Mississippi process, interpret, and represent the 1927 disaster? Because most of them were poor and had little, if any, access to publishing, researchers have to turn to their songs, particularly blues songs – by far the most popular genre at that time – to fully answer these questions.

2In recent years, a number of authors have studied blues representations of the 1927 Flood, often drawing on ethnomusicologist David Evans’s meticulous collection of flood songs and contextualisation work. Richard Mizelle looked for social interpretations of the disaster contained in blues songs in Backwater Blues, while Susan Scott Parrish focused on media representations of the disaster and their publics and analysed one blues song, Bessie Smith’s “Back-Water Blues”. However, little or no research seems to have studied the relationship with the river expressed in blues songs and put blues representations of the flood in perspective with representations of the river and of nature in general in pre-1927 African-American songs. Besides, no synchronic comparison of these songs with the way singers from other communities represented the flood has been conducted. Missing is a study of a corpus of blues songs going beyond one iconic song and analysing the vision of nature and disaster contained in them.

3The first part of this article will trace out the relationships between humans and the natural environment in the Louisiana and Mississippi Delta floodplains before 1927. It is vital to understand the way the different groups of people and institutions existing there interpreted and coped with disasters in the past in order to understand how they reacted to environmental emergency during the 1927 Flood, but also during later disasters. In the second part, I will describe the flood and analyse the political and media responses to this disaster, before focusing, in the third part, on the way African Americans interpreted, represented, and reacted to it in the Black press, in blues songs, and in the advertisement that accompanied them.

1. Relationships between humans and the natural environment in the Louisiana and Mississippi floodplains before 1927

4The Mississippi River drains 41% of the US territory. From Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf of Mexico, the river runs across a vast plain made of sediments wrenched away from the rest of its basin. Until the late 19th century, every spring flood deposited tons of sediments on the river’s alluvial plains, creating broad natural levees called “high ridges”, which were the only high ground on otherwise flat but incredibly fertile lowlands. The other dominant influence in the region is the Gulf of Mexico, which induces a humid subtropical climate, characterised by high precipitation throughout the year, particularly in the winter and spring months (Cobb 3, Saikku 26-37). Early settlers of the Mississippi Delta described “jungle-like vegetation”, subject to unpredictable weather and flooding, teeming with wild animals and mosquitoes, and constantly plagued by diseases (Cobb 4-15). In Louisiana, hurricanes made this environment even more unsuitable for human colonisation. A year after de Bienville established New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1718, a hurricane destroyed the French settlement. But,

despite recommendations by his engineer that a new location be found, de Bienville persisted [...] Flooding, hurricanes, and yellow fever were secondary issues to the control of the Mississippi River. (Keddy 110)

Fig. 1: The Mississippi River alluvial plain. Denève, Stéphanie, modified from Chapman, S.S., Kleiss, B.A., Omernik, J.M., Foti, T.L., and Murray, E.O. Ecoregions of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. U.S. Geological Survey, 2004 (public domain).​data/​map/​map_eco_lg.pdf, 4 October 2020.

1.1 Human settlement

5The first human communities who ventured in the region in the pre-colonial period were confronted with the same physical obstacles, and their way of coping with floods was to avoid them as much as possible, by settling on and cultivating the high ridges along the river (Saikku 70-71). The difficulties of the terrain make it surprising that European and American settlers should have persisted in attempting to colonise this region. If the initial reason was strategic for European empires, the motivations became economic when it appeared that the incredibly lush soil of the floodplains and the subtropical climate were ideal for agriculture, particularly for sugar cane and cotton cultivation, in a period when international demand was increasing. In Louisiana, sugar and cotton plantations developed from the 1830s on, while plantations appeared in the Mississippi Delta from the late 1840s, to the benefit of big planters from other states, who brought thousands of slaves with them. The formidable physical obstacles of the Delta required much capital and manpower and exploiting the land was financially inaccessible to poor settlers. Another condition on which the development of commercial agriculture along the Mississippi depended and which required considerable financial and human resources was the taming of the river, which threatened to destroy lives and properties every year. The landowners’ way of coping with a hostile environment and the disasters that regularly affected them was to ignore the danger for economic reasons and prevent disaster through the gradual erection of dykes by their slaves and their free descendants. The exploitation and control of the exceptional natural resources of the lower Mississippi basin were thus inseparable from the exploitation and control of a massive servile workforce. After the disastrous 1874 flood, the American Congress entrusted the US Army Corps of Engineers with standardising the design and construction of the levees in order to make them higher and stronger. The military chose what came to be known as the “levees only” policy, in spite of opposition by civil engineers, who warned that constricting such a powerful and complex body of water would induce more destructive floods. The idea of totally controlling the river embodied the faith in technology typical of that time and was perfectly in tune with the planters’ expectations of hegemonic power (Barry 21-92).

6The record floods of 1912, 1913, and 1922 dealt a devastating blow to this dogma and to the levees themselves. Despite the requisitioning of thousands of Black workers to consolidate the levees and even serve as human sandbags in 1912 (Barry 131), the river ripped the levees and the floodplains were covered by water, making thousands homeless and preventing harvest for two years. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers persisted in considering levees as the sole response to floods, in a period when the development of industrial plantations required even more brutal exploitation and control of natural and human resources. The workforce who built the lower Mississippi levee system was mostly African American and often lived in levee camps where violence, racism, and crime were rife and the work exhausting (Cobb 126, Evans 8). African Americans had therefore had a long and keen exposure to the environment of the lower Mississippi basin when the 1927 Flood struck and this exposure had regularly been associated with oppression, violence, and exhaustion.

1.2 The African-American workforce’s relationship with the natural environment

7From the outset of colonisation, African Americans were those who cleared the forests that covered the lower Mississippi valley, drained and cultivated most of the land, and built the levees. Natural elements filled the slaves’ lives and their work songs. The lyrics of these songs were often adapted to their various activities (Levine 7) and described the immediate environment in which they took place, and the weather, in particular. With parts of Louisiana and most of the Mississippi Delta still densely forested, this constant contact with nature and its dangers persisted in the early twentieth century. The natural environment also invited itself in every other aspect of Black people’s lives, and especially in their poorly-insulated shacks, which were built on the lowest-lying lands and always at risk of flooding. Another type of forced association with nature was the imposition on African Americans of a dehumanising definition that constantly identified them with animals. In 1930, “the [...] Staple Cotton Review touted a plan by which both stock and tenants could be maintained at the same fifteen cents per day cost ‘per head’” (Cobb 185). To survive physically and mentally, Blacks had no other choice than to escape, by literally leaving the plantation, or by mentally fleeing the narrow place they were assigned to, through their religious practices and beliefs, folktales, and songs. Nature was constantly present in the slaves’ religious lives: baptism was often performed in the river and clandestine religious rituals took place in the woods. The natural environment was also central to the slaves’ interpretation of the Bible. In their spirituals, Old Testament heroes achieved their victories in an environment whose characteristics were described with great force and precision, making the biblical scenes even more real in the slaves’ here and now. The Jordan of the Bible became the Mississippi of the slaves’ everyday life and was often mentioned in spirituals, where it seems to represent the border between slavery and freedom. Crossing it was probably a coded reference to fleeing to Northern states. In “Roll, Jordan, Roll” or “My Army’s Crossing Over”, the image of the Jordan “rolling” suggests the Last Judgment, when the evil men enforcing slavery will be washed away by the angry and “dangerous” river.

  • 1 “French music” referred to songs recorded by Louisiana French speakers before the record companies’ (...)

8The rich and enduring tradition of spirituals and work songs created a reservoir of images and lines, which were known to everyone in the community in the early twentieth century and on which blues artists drew to create their own poetry and conjure up shared references with the public. Blues singers also incorporated references to their current environment, sometimes in an almost documentary way, and included many coded animal references. As a result, early blues were often filled with multiple and polysemous references to the environment. As part of my PhD research, I have analysed 400 blues recorded by Black artists from the Mississippi Delta and Louisiana between 1924 and 1970. More than 60% of the pre-1940 songs studied contain references to the natural environment, which sometimes fill the whole song and present nature as an active force in people’s lives. Identification with natural elements is frequent in these songs. Other communities who lived in close contact with the environment of the lower Mississippi basin and were just as exposed to environmental disasters mentioned the environment much less: 22% of the “French songs”1 recorded in Louisiana before 1940 do so and none but one deals with hurricanes or floods. No hillbilly song of this period mentions the 1927 Flood. What this difference suggests is that intense exposure is not the only determining factor in the number of natural references used in blues, but rather that the interpretation of the conditions of and reasons for this intense exposure were decisive in the choice of talking about the natural environment, and natural disasters in particular.

9Even before the 1927 Flood, several blues mentioned the river. In Louisianan Papa Charlie Jackson’s 1925 “Faking Blues”, the narrator considers crossing the river and “going to the nation, marry [him] an Indian squaw”, but he goes to the river and finally decides to “come on back to town”. Like many indebted sharecroppers who dreamt of migrating away, but could not, the narrator cannot escape to freedom. Other blues evoke jumping into the river and drowning. Compared to the triumphant notes of hope associated with the river in spirituals, the Mississippi had become a much more ambivalent reference for blues singers and now symbolised their powerlessness and their entrapment in the South’s oppressive society. In “Ma” Rainey’s 1925 “Levee Camp Moan”, the narrator, who had previously followed her lover to Houston, seems desperate that he chose to come “back to the levee where he used to stay”, probably in the hope of earning more money. What this song and many others also illustrate is how often African Americans moved to escape dreadful working conditions and find better opportunities. Migration was also the way they usually reacted to environmental disasters.

10The boll weevil is a telling example of this and of the way White elites reacted to environmental disaster. After the invasive beetle started destroying Southern cotton crops, in the 1900s, thousands of farm workers migrated to the Mississippi Delta, which the parasite had not reached yet. Its arrival in 1909 intensified the trend towards strictly supervised plantations, on which planters controlled every aspect of the cultivation while making sure the insect’s presence in the Delta was kept secret. They trusted the Delta’s rich soil, its favourable climate, and their scientific handling of the crop to limit the damage caused by the insect, but feared that the news might trigger a massive migration of the workforce, which would have caused more damage than the parasite itself (Giesen 683-704). Their answer to environmental emergency was to trust their technological superiority over nature, downplay the severity of the problem, and increase control over their crops and workers. In spite of their efforts, the weevil and the 1912 and 1913 floods, added to extreme poverty, oppression, and the beginning of World War I, triggered the First Great Migration of Southern Blacks to local urban centres and Northern factories. This continuous migration intensified after the 1922 flood. As Cobb underlines,

the fact that the levee-building effort failed to bring the Mississippi River fully under control only added to the instability and uncertainty of Delta life [...] Flood, fear of flood, and memory of flood were influential realities for everyone who lived in the region. (Cobb 127)

11This was true for all inhabitants, White or Black. The environment of this region and the regular disasters that characterised it had long been present in their lives, consciousness, and culture when the 1927 Flood occurred and this fashioned the way they reacted to and interpreted the 1927 environmental emergency.

2. The Great 1927 Flood

2.1 The flood

12In the fall and winter of 1926, exceptional rainfall affected the entire Mississippi basin, swelling the river and all its tributaries from north to south. In February and March, the waterlogged dykes began failing and tributaries of the Mississippi overflowed due to the excess water flowing back from the Mississippi, killing dozens and making thousands homeless (Barry 14, 173-86). In April, the rain intensified and the Mounds Landing levee, which protected the entire Delta, and especially Greenville, the cotton capital of the world, began to crack, despite the efforts of thousands of men to consolidate it. It gave way on 21 April. A three-quarter-of-a-mile-long and 130-foot-high wall of water broke over the Delta, carrying away all the trees, houses, rails, cattle, and people on its path. The water covered an area 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. Almost all the Delta’s 185,500 inhabitants became homeless. In May, most of Louisiana’s levees collapsed one after the other, leaving 150,000 people homeless. In June, another flood affected the entire lower Mississippi basin. Only in August did the water recede from all the land it had covered. The disaster affected more than 930,000 people. The Red Cross established 154 camps in seven states, in which 325,000 people, mostly African Americans, lived, some for up to four months. It provided food and clothing to another 312,000, mostly White people, outside the camps. Most of the remaining 300,000 ran away. Officially, the flood caused between 250 and 300 deaths and cost an estimated one billion dollars (Barry 202-06, 282-86).

2.2 White political and media response to the flood

13When the levees started to show signs of weakness, planters sent farm workers by the thousands to the levees to reinforce them day and night. From mid-March, the State of Mississippi mobilised the National Guard. Delta Blacks were arrested and forcibly taken to the levees. The organisation of work was based on camps of 100 to 200 Black workers, supervised by one or two White guards. These camps, called “concentration camps” when they were equipped with tents and kitchens allowing workers to stay there 24 hours a day, as in Greenville, were squalid and brutal places. In the cold spring of 1927, 10,000 Black workers worked there, in the pouring rain and under the constant control of armed guards. When a Black worker fell into the river, the work was not interrupted. As the rain intensified in April, the Army Corps of Engineers repeated that the government-built levees would hold. On the night of 20-21 April, the men working on the Greenville levee tried to flee when they realised that it was about to break but were forced to stay at gunpoint. Local newspapers reported that thousands were working on the levee when it collapsed and that it had been impossible to find the bodies. The National Guard’s official report stated that no lives had been lost among the Guards and the Red Cross counted two deaths: literally, the lives of Blacks did not count (Barry 183-84, 200-02).

14Environmental disasters had so far been considered local problems (Mizelle 22). However, the scale of the 1927 Flood required federal intervention and J. Edgar Hoover was appointed by President Coolidge to manage the relief effort from 22nd April. Mizelle points out that the relief was organised as a military operation and that the Delta became a real theatre of war: much of the assistance was provided by military personnel and equipment, including warships and aircrafts. Hoover turned the response to the flood into a moment of patriotic mobilisation, continually using military metaphors. Military metaphors had been used in previous decades, in the fight against yellow fever-carrying mosquitoes or the boll weevil (Mizelle 86-88, 90), but this time, the army was indeed involved, on a scale unprecedented in peace times. A war between man and nature was being waged, and Hoover called for national mobilisation and unity against the enemy through a skilfully orchestrated national media campaign, which greatly contributed to his election as president of the United-States in 1928. In the press and on the radio, the river was presented as some monstrous alien force disrupting the natural order of human activities, an enemy that only a coordinated and heroic military response could defeat. This response demanded funds and the recent technology of the radio was key in providing information about the flood and soliciting donations from the public across the nation. Radio stations aired non-stop special programmes featuring celebrities but also politicians such as Hoover and Coolidge, and received thousands of dollars. Short films, showing Hoover helping poor African Americans, were also made, as during World War I (Mizelle 92-97).

15However, although Hoover was presented by the media as “the Great Humanitarian” and the saviour of Blacks, African Americans’ experience was very far from that of a great and beautiful national unity, especially in the Delta. Hoover believed that the government should stay out of local conflicts, especially race relations in the South, in order not to alienate local elites. As a result, the Red Cross provided food and materials but did not control how they were distributed. In Greenville, the Red Cross supply management was entrusted to William Alexander Percy, who belonged to one of the most powerful planter families in the Delta. Under his rule, African Americans were literally re-enslaved.

16True to their permanent obsession, the planters around Greenville considered that “[t]he dispersal of [their] labor was a longer evil to the Delta than a flood” (Percy 258). They forced Blacks to live in the Red Cross camps built on what was left of the levees, forbidding the supply of food to those who refused. In Greenville, 13,000 African Americans concentrated in an eight-mile-long camp had to work for free to repair the levees and unload the barges sent by the Red Cross, while elsewhere in the South Black refugees were forced to do the same work, but were paid for it. If a White man in Greenville needed help cleaning mud or unloading supplies, any Black living in or outside Red Cross camps could be requisitioned and forced to work for him. Those who refused were arrested for vagrancy, beaten, and sometimes killed. At Percy’s request, a labelling system was implemented which resembled that which existed during slavery: Blacks had to wear a tag on their shirts, bearing their name and that of their landowner or of a White guarantor. The suppression of their freedom of movement, so important to African Americans, re-established the total control of the descendants of slave owners over the Black labour force. Even more humiliating was the fact that they had no choice: the threat of violence and prison was revolting and terrifying, but, with all the crops and stocks destroyed, the most immediate danger was that of famine and disease. The meagre rations offered by the Red Cross were barely enough to survive. In the Red Cross camp in Greenville, there was no canteen or cutlery, so that African Americans had to eat with their fingers, standing or crouching. The tents had no floors or beds and the Black refugees slept on the damp earth of the levee, amid the stench of thousands of rotting animal corpses. Malnutrition, promiscuity, poor water supply, exhaustion and intense stress were an ideal breeding ground for disease. Planters started to fear an epidemic of tuberculosis, malaria, or yellow fever but refused to relocate the refugees elsewhere (Cobb 122-123, Barry 312-17, Mizelle 35-39).

17For months, local White elites and the Army Corps of Engineers displayed a blind faith in the levees and in their power to control everything natural and human in the region. As a result, no evacuations were ordered before the flood in Mississippi. The political response to the 1927 Flood was therefore a mix of old habits and new methods. As with previous disasters, environmental emergency was interpreted by planters not as a danger in itself, but as threatening to lose them their workforce and their economic empire. Their response to the emergency was again to officially downplay it, trust the bulwarks they had built against it, and, once it appeared these defences might not hold, contain the threat by using the forced labour of African Americans deprived of their basic rights. The 1927 Flood also saw the introduction of new ways of coping with environmental disaster and disasters in general. The most notable of them was the planters’ consent to massive federal intervention. Although this was not completely new—Washington had taken over the construction of the levees since 1879—never had planters, traditionally hostile to Northern interference, relied on federal help to such an extent. During the flood, they realised that federal aid programmes could be used to strengthen the existing political and economic order. In 1927, the American Red Cross ensured the survival of a captive labour force, working for free and forbidden to find new work, for the sole interest of planters. From then on, a system of misappropriation of public funds was used continuously by Southern elites, especially during the major public works launched in 1928 to prevent future floods and during the New Deal (Cobb 185-86).

3. African-American response to the flood

18Throughout the South, African Americans had traditionally coped with environmental disaster by migrating, but this time, this strategy was prevented in great part by the imprisonment of thousands of Blacks in camps, as early as March.

3.1 The Black press

19African-American flood survivors who were literate and were not held in camps sent letters to Black newspapers, describing how they were treated and asking for help. Renowned journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, a Mississippi native, along with W.E.B. DuBois, African-American pastors, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), denounced the mistreatment of Black refugees and collected money for them. As early as January 1927, the Chicago Defender published a report on the flood that had hit Nashville, Tennessee:

The Southern economic law, which assigns members of our Race to homes in the lowlands bordering dangerous rivers and swamps, might be blamed for the suffering widespread in communities occupied by members of our Race… Relief work was begun immediately in the section occupied by Whites. Our people have been forgotten by the police and various reserve workers.

20From late March, before the Greenville levee broke, widely-circulated Black newspapers throughout the country, as well as smaller publications such as Louisiana Weekly, began to cover the situation in Southern camps extensively. From May on, with such titles as “Refugees Herded Like Cattle to Stop Escape from Peonage” (The Chicago Defender) or “Conscript Labor Gangs Keep Flood Refugees in legal Bondage” (The Pittsburgh Courier), they highlighted the role of the Red Cross as a silent accomplice in the abuses against Blacks in its camps, directed their readers’ financial donations to Black organisations, and provided a counter-narrative to that of Hoover, which filled the White media with articles demonstrating that Blacks were better off after the flood than before (Evans 26, 73, Barry 317, 319-320, Mizelle 77-78). The descriptions of the raging flooding rivers in Black newspapers were quite similar to those found in the White press, however, what differed was the interpretation of the disaster, which, to Black journalists and farm workers alike, laid bare the environmental injustice and racism that characterised the South. Whereas the flood was described as a tragic “natural disaster” in the White press and among Whites in general (Evans 9), the Black press insisted that the causes of the disaster were social and racial. While White elites associated the flood with the risk of a haemorrhage of Black workers and considered both as life-threatening for their economic empire, Black opinion leaders identified nature and White institutions as equally deadly threats, as shown by a June 27 speech by an NAACP representative, which described Blacks as the victims of “an unparalleled affliction, not only at the hands of nature, but by those who claim a mission of mercy” (Mizelle 75). An editorial in the Baltimore Afro-American identified nature, the Red Cross, and the Martial Law as “enemies” (Mizelle 78). However, the religious undertones of some editorials in the Black press point to a different interpretation. The Norfolk Journal and Guide presented the flood as “death-dealing,” but the river itself was described as “the mighty Mississippi River” (Mizelle 78), while the Baltimore Afro-American editorialised “Thank God for the Mississippi River Flood” (Evans 9).

3.2 The flood in songs

21These articles echoed the way many preachers and refugees interpreted the flood: a divine punishment of White southerners for the treatment they had inflicted on Blacks for centuries and a new beginning for African Americans. A favourite song in the refugee camps was “The Old Account Was Settled” (Evans 10), a popular 1902 hymn, recorded by the Norfolk Jubilee Quartette in February 1927. The lyrics went:

The old account was settled long ago,
And the record’s clear today
For He washed my sins away

22At a time when Black farm workers were stifled by a debt system that stunted any possibility of economic independence and made it impossible to legally leave their landowners, Black refugees interpreted the flood by giving new meaning to themes that had existed in their religious songs for years. The apocalyptic flood washed away all old debts, and brought hopes of salvation through migration to the North as soon as it was possible, a move Black newspapers continually encouraged.

  • 2 The Works Progress Administration was a New Deal agency. One of its projects was the Federal Writer (...)

23Yet, in the spring and summer of 1927, many Blacks were trapped in camps and could not leave. They spent their days working on the levees, had little access to newspapers, and journalists were forbidden in and around camps. Many in the camps were farm workers who had been forced to spend their youth in the fields rather than at school and were not at ease with writing. Outside camps, most refugees were too busy trying to survive to write their stories. Very little information about how the refugees interpreted the flood can be found in the WPA2 interviews that were conducted in the 1930s. As a result, although the interpretation of the flood by Black intellectual, political, and religious elites is well documented and can be found in speeches and newspaper articles, there are very few first-hand sources as to how the victims experienced the disaster. The flood and the way they were treated were so overwhelming that coping with the trauma must have been extremely difficult. Singing had always been one of the ways Southern Blacks had processed and interpreted what was happening to them, individually and collectively. However, the testimonies concerning the amount of singing in the refugee camps are contradictory: while some described hundreds of Blacks singing spirituals, others “found [...] ‘no music’” (Evans 9-11) or depicted how National Guard officers sometimes ordered Black refugees to sing spirituals (Barry 126-27).

Fig. 2: Trapped in Mississippi. “Near Helm, Miss. BR L132-6. 5-9-27”. Flood Scene. Gelatin silver print of the 1927 Mississippi River flood by Illinois Central Railroad Company, 9 May, 1927. Courtesy of the Archives and Records Services Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

24More than fifty blues about the flood and related topics were recorded in 1927 and in the following years. Because blues music was long studied as the spontaneous emanation of the Black community, flood songs are often seen as written by the direct victims of the disaster, but how could they have recorded songs as they were trapped in camps for months? Some indeed lived in the Greenville camp, like Alice Pearson, and recorded their songs once they had escaped, but most of the singers who recorded flood songs were never held in camps. Many were, however, familiar with the situation and many blues songs recorded at that time betray intimate knowledge of the flood and of the refugees’ feelings. In some songs, intimacy with the river itself is expressed, as when Bessie Smith personifies and directly addresses the river in “Homeless Blues”, as she would an old acquaintance of hers, present in her people’s lives and culture for generations: “Mississippi River, what a fix you left me in”. Blues artists relied on their own experience of the flood, on testimonies by friends, relatives, and former co-workers, on newspaper reports – Blind Lemon Jefferson explicitly mentions the newspapers in “Rising High Water Blues” – and on their imagination to create vivid descriptions of the disaster. The motivations behind these songs were manifold. They were a way for Southern blues artists, many of whom had been sharecroppers and sometimes still were, to document the situation as well as they could, express their solidarity, and bring comfort to those hardest hit by the flood. Singers also used their status as both insiders and outsiders to be the voice of the voiceless and raise awareness, and money, among the African-American diasporas throughout the nation. Record companies, who saw the commercial opportunity offered by the flood theme, incited singers to record songs on flood-related topics. However, the desire of the artists themselves to sell records should not be underestimated. The success of early flood songs by blues stars Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith probably inspired other artists to record flood songs. Earning money was always one of blues artists’ main concerns: to them, music was an art and a job that ensured they could live without having to work for a White man (Miller 54). Soon after the Greenville levee broke, singers rushed to record songs about the event, vying to craft the best flood song (Evans 29).

25The competition between record companies involved heavy advertising in the Black press, with spectacular illustrations and written descriptions. Evans describes the advert used by OKeh Records to promote “High Water Blues”, by Blue Belle, in August 1927. Although the singer was safe on land in St. Louis during the flood and, in the song, only expresses her desire to build a ship and escape, the advertising poster depicted

a young woman sitting in a rowboat without oars, holding her head in her hands, while huge waves tower above her. The caption read: ‘The great green waves are rising high . . . like giant, yellow-eyed monsters they have menaced BLUE BELLE with death . . . she has raised her voice in song . . . all the horror of ‘HIGH WATER BLUES’ is waiting for you on this record. You see the stricken maid . . . her struggle to safety . . . she holds you like a spell with her brooding Blues. (Evans 31)

Fig. 3: Okeh Records advertisement for Blue Belle’s “High Water Blues,” May 1927 (public domain)

26To sell records, companies tried to assume a posture of authenticity by suggesting they presented the testimonies of real survivors of the flood. They sensationalised and fictionalised the flood, the river, the songs, and the singers themselves, thus creating tall tales that contributed to shaping the representation of the disaster in the imaginations of African Americans inside and outside the flooded zone and in their collective memory. Far from undermining the use of blues songs as sources, the way these songs and the ads that accompanied their release fictionalised the flood helps us understand the representations of nature and of environmental disaster and emergency at that time and in the following century. Besides, it is possible, by comparing the singers’ biographies, the lyrics, and the progress of the flood, to identify how familiar with the flood the singers were and to recognise particular events or landscapes in the lyrics. Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere” is probably the most vivid example of this: in this long 2-part song, Patton describes the flood and the towns it struck in great detail, including the army planes that flew over the Delta, and manages to create an atmosphere that immerses the listeners in the flood. In “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues”, Barbecue Bob describes himself walking along the levee in search of his girlfriend who was washed away by the current, his feet covered in mud. He mentions the three states most affected by the flood, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, rooting his story in the geography of the flood and of its victims, while expressing the loneliness and sexual misery of an exhausted man who lost his woman.

27Many songs expressed both the flood survivors’ feeling of isolation and abandonment and a will to alert the public about their plight. In Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues”, recorded in May 1927, a father tells his children: “back water left us all alone”. Louisianan Memphis Minnie and Mississippian Joe McCoy had not started their recording career in 1927 but seized the opportunity of their first recording session, in 1929, to describe the consequences of the Greenville levee collapse. In “When the Levee Breaks”, they ask “What should I do? I’ve got nobody to tell my troubles to”. Similar feelings are expressed in Alice Pearson’s “Greenville Levee Blues” and “Water Bound Blues”. In the latter, she describes how she “climbed an old lonesome tree” to escape the flood, the loneliness of the tree paralleling that of the refugees, and in “Greenville Levee Blues”, she says she is “living on the levee, sleeping on the ground” and that she will “tell everybody that Greenville’s a good old town”, the last line obviously meant to be ironical. Patton, in “High Water Everywhere”, states that “[He]’ll tell the world the water done struck Drews’s town”, thus confirming the will to use songs as a means to make a broad audience aware of the situation of emergency in which the refugees were.

28Songs broached a variety of flood-related themes, like that of lost crops and the impossibility to plant anything, even long after the disaster, but a major theme was the conditions of life and work on the levees.

Fig. 4: A Mississippi Delta refugee camp for flood victims in Yazoo City. “Yazoo City 5-13-27”. Refugee camp for flood victims. Gelatin silver print of the 1927 Mississippi River flood by Illinois Central Railroad Company, 13 May, 1927. Courtesy of the Archives and Records Services Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

29The “high fever and suffering” mentioned by Pearson in “Water Bound Blues” probably refer to both the refugees’ feelings and the diseases that spread in levee camps. In “When the Levee Breaks”, McCoy laments working on the levee “both night and day” and adds “done work so hard to keep the water away”. In March 1928, New Orleans artist Lonnie Johnson recorded “Broken Levee Blues”, probably the most defiant song released about levee work:

They want me to work on the levee [...] I was so scared the levee might break, Lord, and I may drown [...] The police say ‘Work, fight, or go to jail’. I say, ‘I ain’t toting no sack’ [...] and I ain’t buildin’ no levee.

30But Johnson was a well-established musician, who did not fear reprisal or censorship by his record company and decided to use his notoriety to raise awareness about the situation of African Americans. Even so, he waited for a year before recording this song. As underlined by Evans, most flood songs do not seem to denounce forced work under Jim Crow. However, a careful examination of the lyrics reveals many allusions to the racism, injustice, and violence that Black refugees underwent and to the anger that was boiling inside of them. There is no doubt African Americans outside the flooded zone easily deciphered these allusions. In February 1927, two months before the Mississippi flood, Bessie Smith recorded “Back-Water Blues”, the biggest blues hit of that year. Although the song was not about the Mississippi flood but about that of one of its indirect tributaries, the Cumberland River, which hit Nashville in early January 1927 (Evans 25-28), it became “the anthem of the 1927 Flood”, and influenced how victims interpreted the disaster, “while the flood rose all around them” in the spring (Scott Parrish, 129). In this song, Smith mentions that there is “trouble taking place in the lowlands at night”, echoing the January Chicago Defender article that underlined the environmental injustice faced by Nashville Blacks, whose dwellings were located “in the lowlands bordering dangerous rivers”. Smith adds that “when there is thunder and lightning [...] thousands of people ain’t got no place to go”. One could interpret these lyrics as fairly standard, but, with hindsight, the criticism of racial and geographical segregation and its consequences appears clear (Evans 25, 29). In several songs, White oppressors are hinted at, often through attributing adjectives that could apply to landowners or guards to other objects. In “When the Levee Breaks”, McCoy personifies the levee: “mean old levee caused me to weep and moan”. Obviously, those who caused his distress are those who forced him to work on the levee rather than the levee itself. In an even more striking example, “Flood and Thunder Blues”, James Crawford sang “Black cats whinin’, White dogs want to bite”. African Americans would immediately have identified those who were whining during the flood as Black people and those who harassed them as White policemen, especially since dogs were associated with slave hunters in the collective memory. In other songs, oppressors are simply identified as “they”, as in Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”. When Patton sings that he – like many Black refugees – wanted to go to the hill country, east of the Delta, and adds “they got me barred”, he is obviously referring to the White guards who prevented Blacks from leaving the Delta (Evans 62). In part II of the same song, Patton suggests that whole families drowned without being rescued and even provides the rescuers’ cynical comment in an aside: “Tough luck, they can drown”. In this song and several others, anger is clearly perceptible. It is palpable in Patton’s voice and it is explicit in Laura Smith’s “The Mississippi Blues”, when she sings “I get so raving mad”. This anger and the temptation to revenge can also be felt in Lonnie Johnson’s “Low Land Moan”, in which he describes the “long and hard” levee work and how he is going to buy a shotgun and shoot his woman “just to see her fall”. This fantasy of extreme lethal violence, using the weapon that guards threatened Black workers with, was probably intended at the White oppressors standing above Black men rather than at a Black woman.

31The last recurring theme was that of migration. Although Blacks were stuck on the levees, and precisely because they were, the idea that they would leave the South was, more than ever before, the way they coped with the disaster. “I can’t live here no more”, and “I ain’t coming back no more” are among the most common lines in blues from that period. In “Homeless Blues”, recorded in September 1927, Bessie Smith sang: “Wished I was an eagle, but I’m a plain old Black crow. I’m gonna flap my wings and leave here, and never come back no more”. Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” made it clear that this migration was to be expected and that it would take him north: “The levee’s sinking; Lord, you know I ain’t gonna stay. I’m going up the country [...] in a few more days”. The fact that leaving was their only hope was summed up by Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy: “when the levee breaks, crying won’t help you, praying won’t do no good, when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move”.

32In a few of these songs and in many of the ads that promoted them, the Mississippi River was presented as an enemy that the refugees feared and even abhorred. However, contrary to what was found in the rhetoric of White planters and of the government, they had no intention to fight this enemy, and only did so because they were forced to, as Lonnie Johnson made clear. The war against nature was not their war and they were doubly victim of it. African-American flood survivors quickly realised that they had no community of interest with their oppressors. In a way, they understood that this fight was useless, that the Mississippi was too strong to go on trying, and that the only thing to do was to leave, which many an environmentalist today would agree with. The Mississippi had wrecked their lives but the only reason Blacks had come to live and work so close to it was the Whites, as Bessie Smith suggested in “Back-Water Blues”. Besides, those who continued to willingly endanger Black lives were the planters. While, to the White elites, the environmental disaster was interpreted as an economic emergency that justified re-enslaving Blacks, the blues recorded in that period suggest that what Blacks cared about was the social and human emergency caused by the environmental injustice that reigned in the South: they had lost their living and their homes, could plant no cotton or corn, were trapped in camps where their lives were constantly threatened, and were left alone to face this nightmare, in which those who were supposed to help them—the Red Cross—condoned the violence they were inflicted. The concerns expressed in many blues songs and the way they represented the emergency as social emergency were undoubtedly faithful to the refugees’ viewpoint, but, because they were partly aimed at testifying or alerting about the situation, songs may give an incomplete vision of the refugees’ relationship with nature. Research into other sources could find clues to how flood survivors analysed the choices made to rely on the “levees only” policy in the years before the disaster, for example.


33The disaster of 1927 had a considerable environmental, economic, social, political, and cultural impact and was both the culmination of phenomena that had been at work for decades and a decisive turning point in many domains. The flood demonstrated the failure of a stubborn Mississippi River development policy aimed at protecting White-owned plantations under the auspices of the army and solely based on the constant raising of levees imprisoning the river and worsening its floods as a result. The disaster had a major impact on environmental policies, as it sounded the death knell of the “levees only” approach. In 1928, the American Congress passed a new Flood Control Act, which provided for the construction of basins and spillways to allow the Mississippi River to overflow in a controlled manner, while insisting on the need to renovate and still rely on the levees, without which no intense economic activity or urbanisation could exist in the region.

34In terms of social and race relations, the Flood of 1927 highlighted the survival of an economic system that was entirely dependent on the exploitation of African-American labour and was prepared to commit the worst atrocities in order to survive. Faced with the complete disruption of cotton production caused by the flood, the elites of the Delta chose to restore the conditions of physical and economic enslavement that had prevailed before Emancipation and, to do so, used all their political weight to ensure control of the federal aid to the victims. What happened in the Delta’s Red Cross camps was so serious that many African Americans who had not made the decision to migrate to northern cities during previous disasters did so as soon as they could, a solution which nevertheless remained impossible for many indebted Black workers. The conditions imposed in the camps, revealed by the Black press and by blues singers, led to a campaign for Black rights by the NAACP, which marked a milestone in the struggle of African Americans for economic and social justice and created the conditions for a much broader and longer campaign on the rights of the workers employed on the levee renovation sites after 1928. Half a century before the concepts of environmental injustice and environmental racism emerged in the United States, the Great 1927 Flood thus revealed the profound inequality in the face of environmental disasters that existed in the South.

35The way African Americans and political and economic elites interpreted and reacted to this environmental emergency was influenced by their social and economic position and by their experience of previous disasters, which, in turn, influenced the interpretation of and reaction to later environmental disasters. More than fifty blues songs were recorded about the 1927 Flood and many more followed about life in the camps where thousands of Blacks were parked to repair the levees after 1927. Blues songs about the flood are key to understanding how environmental emergency has been represented and memorialised in the United States and among African Americans in particular. They expressed the singers’ vision of the flood, determined by their own experience of the disaster and of life in the South, by their closeness to the victims, and by their desire to be faithful to the refugees’ experience. Their interpretation was also influenced by the point of view of Black opinion leaders, and by their ambition, encouraged by record companies, to create the most vivid depiction of the flood, which contributed to mythicising it. These songs influenced the way African Americans in the South and throughout the nation interpreted the 1927 Flood, as it was happening and in the century that followed. After Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans blues and jazz singers sang 1927 blues flood songs, illustrating how past interpretations of disasters passed down through popular songs are used to make sense of present disasters and cement cultural identity by associating the destiny of a community to environmental disaster through time. Meanwhile, New Orleans’s Black youth created a wealth of hip hop songs, using another type of popular music to express their race and class interpretation of environmental emergency. In 2005, as in 1927, African Americans were the ones who suffered the most from the consequences of a disaster that was in great part due to the stubborn development of the lands bordering the Mississippi and to excessive reliance on levees. In both disasters, victim assistance revealed racism and the submission of national relief institutions to the interests of local ruling classes. More recently, in Flint, Michigan, the lead poisoning of the city’s drinking water exposed 100,000, mostly poor and Black, inhabitants and gave rise to many cultural productions, often using hip hop as their medium. These songs, like the 1927 blues, provide a precious oral history of environmental disasters, as interpreted by those who are not only the main victims but who also analyse, interpret, and organise to fight against environmental emergency and injustice.

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Barry, John M. Rising Tide. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Print.

Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place in the World: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

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Songs cited in this article


“My Army’s Crossing Over.” First published in Allen, William Francis, Mckim Garrison, Lucy, and Ware, Charles Pickard. Slave Songs of the United States. A. Simpson & Co, 1867. Roud 11992.

“Roll, Jordan, Roll.” First published in Allen, William Francis, Mckim Garrison, Lucy, and Ware, Charles Pickard. Slave Songs of the United States. A. Simpson & Co, 1867. Roud 6697.

Norfolk Jubilee Quartette. “The Old Account Was Settled.” Rec. February 1927. Paramount 12499.


Crawford, James. “Flood and Thunder Blues.” Rec. July 1928. Gennett 6536.

Hicks, Robert (Barbecue Bob). “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues.” Rec. June 1927. Columbia 14222-D.

Jackson, Papa Charlie. “The Faking Blues.” Rec. April 1925. Paramount 12275.

Jefferson, Blind Lemon. “Rising High Water Blues.” Rec. May 1927. Paramount 12487.

Johnson, Lonnie. “Low Land Moan.” Rec. December 1927. OKeh 8677.

———. “Broken Levee Blues.” Rec. March 1928. OKeh 8618.

Martin, Bessie (Blue Belle). “High Water Blues.” Rec. May 1927. OKeh 8483.

McCoy, Joe and Douglas, Lizzie (Memphis Minnie). “When the Levee Breaks.” Rec. June 1929. Columbia 14439-D.

Patton, Charley. “Pea Vine Blues.” Rec. June 1929. Paramount 12877.

———. “High Water Everywhere.” Rec. October 1929. Paramount 12909.

Pearson, Alice. “Water Bound Blues.” Rec. July 1927. Paramount 12507.

———. “Greenville Levee Blues.” Rec. July 1927. Paramount 12547.

Rainey, Gertrude “Ma.” “Levee Camp Moan.” Rec. August 1925. Paramount 12295.

Smith, Bessie. “Back-Water Blues.” Rec. February 1927. Columbia 14195-D.

———. “Homeless Blues.” Rec. September 1927. Columbia 14260-D.

Smith, Laura. “The Mississippi Blues.” Rec. June 1927. Victor 20775.

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1 “French music” referred to songs recorded by Louisiana French speakers before the record companies’ segregated worldview divided a common repertoire into “Creole songs” and “Cajun songs” in the 1930s.

2 The Works Progress Administration was a New Deal agency. One of its projects was the Federal Writers’ project (FWP), which conducted interviews of former slaves in the South.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: The Mississippi River alluvial plain. Denève, Stéphanie, modified from Chapman, S.S., Kleiss, B.A., Omernik, J.M., Foti, T.L., and Murray, E.O. Ecoregions of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. U.S. Geological Survey, 2004 (public domain).​data/​map/​map_eco_lg.pdf, 4 October 2020.
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Légende Fig. 2: Trapped in Mississippi. “Near Helm, Miss. BR L132-6. 5-9-27”. Flood Scene. Gelatin silver print of the 1927 Mississippi River flood by Illinois Central Railroad Company, 9 May, 1927. Courtesy of the Archives and Records Services Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
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Légende Fig. 3: Okeh Records advertisement for Blue Belle’s “High Water Blues,” May 1927 (public domain)
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Légende Fig. 4: A Mississippi Delta refugee camp for flood victims in Yazoo City. “Yazoo City 5-13-27”. Refugee camp for flood victims. Gelatin silver print of the 1927 Mississippi River flood by Illinois Central Railroad Company, 13 May, 1927. Courtesy of the Archives and Records Services Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
Fichier image/jpeg, 509k
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Référence électronique

Stéphanie DENÈVE, « Representing Environmental Emergency as Social Emergency: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 in Blues Songs from Louisiana and Mississippi »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 06 août 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Stéphanie DENÈVE

Toulouse-Jean Jaurès University
Stéphanie Denève is a doctoral student at Toulouse-Jean Jaurès University. Her PhD dissertation is entitled Nature in Cultures: the Natural Environment in Popular Songs of the Lower Mississippi Basin – Interactions, Perceptions, and Representations (1920-1970). In parallel, she teaches English as a Professeure agrégée at Toulouse-Paul Sabatier University.

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