Welcome to Sonosphere the podcast that explores the sounds all around us in art and music movements through history. Sonosphere is now on WYXR 91.7 FM in Memphis, TN every Monday from 4-5pm. Today’s episode is a harrowing tale of a natural disaster that ravaged much of middle America, especially the South.
The Great Flood of 1927 was one of the most catastrophic floods in our nation’s history. In the summer of 1926 heavy rains started to fall along the Mississippi River, these heavy rains kept up and in March of 1927 levees started to break which led to flooding from Illinois to Mississippi displacing nearly 650,000 people and destroying 16 million acres of land.
In this episode we will discuss the formation of the Mississippi River, the events that led to the flood, the red cross’ response and how they used the media to shape public opinion, as well as Blues songs that helped inform the public about the human turmoil that was a direct result of the flood. Listen in as we hear from Christopher Morris, Scotti Parish and David Evans about this extraordinary event.
Blues musicians presented the most accurate details about the Great Flood of 1927. There was greater Public awareness of the atrocities happening along the Mississippi. Blues songs of the time captured the events and hardships that black people endured during the flood. Though many blues songs were made about the flood we decided to showcase Backwater Blues by Bessie Smith. We spoke with David Evans about the origins of the song, how it became an anthem of the flood, and how the song inspired more musicians to sing about the flood.
Today we’ve heard songs by BBQ Bob, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and many of the blues songs feature artists like pianist James P Johnson who got their start with Black Swan records in early 20s. Sonosphere covered the short tenure of America’s first black-owned record label, Black Swan and the opera singer who shares the labels name – check it out on sonospherepodcast.com to hear the episode on the opera Singer, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield and stay tuned for the Black Swan record label episode’s release in June.
Today we presented the story of possibly the worst natural disaster in our country’s history. The great flood of 1927 was of epic proportion. The flood displaced 650,000 residents and destroyed 16 million acres of land. The toll wrought along the Mississippi River from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico forced people to seek refuge in Red Cross concentration camps. These camps were run in a manner that kept up the status-quo. Black men were forced to work on the levees in order to receive provisions. The levees were patrolled by armed national guardsmen. If anyone tried to escape they were severely beaten or killed. The government and Red Cross used technologies such as radio broadcast to disseminate information about the flood. Northerners got on board with the narrative that they were helping the desperate south. The South rejected this notion as they saw very little relief if any at all.
Blues songs of the day projected the struggles and tragedies in the delta. We highlighted Bessie Smith and her song Backwater Blues today. Although it was not written about the flood of 1927 it was released just as the Levees were breaking along the Mississippi. The song gained national notoriety in America. The song became an anthem of the Flood and led the way to many more songs written about the Great Flood of 1927 as well as songs pertaining to other natural disasters. When you listen to any of the songs about the flood you are transported there you gain a perspective about those that were affected by the great flood. These songs are time capsules of a time of havoc and disillusion in Black southern America.