Blogs > Cliopatria > The Good Flood

Sep 6, 2005 6:39 pm

The Good Flood

One of those odd synchronicities that accompany natural disasters like spooked horses and whining dogs: the week before Katrina, I happened to be reading up on the Louisiana flood of 1927, in James Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth and John Barry’s Rising Tide. The American Studies course I’ll be teaching this year is built around a series of “places in time.” Each week or two, we’ll examine an event or site or moment where “America” and what it meant was constructed, contested, or otherwise up for grabs: the Boston Tea Party, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and so on. I wanted to get a little farther off the path beaten by textbooks and survey courses, and I’d thought about including the 1927 flood. But with a historian’s unerring sense of topicality, I decided not to, three days before Katrina hit.

The scope of the 1927 disaster was similar, if not quite equal, to the size of today’s. The death toll then was over a thousand, and one million people—one percent of the U.S. population at the time—were driven from their homes. John Barry, who wrote the book on the Louisiana flood, had a piece in this Sunday’s New York Timescomparing the watery disasters of 1927 and 2005. It’s good reading, and I recommend checking it out before the link expires. But there’s a funny shift in emphasis—at least, I believe there is—between Barry’s book on the flood, published in 1997, and his op-ed piece, published Sunday. The NYT piece seems to cast 1927 as the Good Flood, 2005 as the Bad. This might just be the effect of trimming a dense 500-page history into an 1500-word op-ed. Or it might be because Barry’s home is submerged today in fifteen feet of oily water. Whatever the reason, I’m struck by the soft-focus portrait of 1927 in the latter piece. “People responded by bonding together,” Barry writes. “Goodness emerged. The fault lines of race and class melted away with the levees, and the commonality of the burden that victims shared created a sense of common humanity.” In contrast, naturally, to the ugly inequalities and unhappy chaos on display in New Orleans this week and last.

Was 1927 the Good Flood? I don’t have Barry’s book in front of me any more (another library user recalled it the day after Katrina, and they weren't the only one looking for the book—Rising Tide jumped this week to #11 on Amazon's best seller list, and the NYT reports it's just gone back into print), but the picture of 1927 that he drew there was considerably less heartwarming. The majority of people displaced by the flood were black sharecroppers. The whites who owned flooded lands desperately feared that black labor would simply abandon the region after the waters receded. White planters had refused outside assistance after earlier floods for fear it would undermine their control of the region. In 1927, the planters succeeded in taking over relief efforts to see that they did not. National guardsmen were used to keep sharecroppers imprisoned in the refugee camps until they could return to working the land, and local officials charged homeless blacks—on credit, ever deepening their debts—for food and medical supplies the Red Cross had intended to be free.

Barry describes how 1927 became a turning point in attitudes towards federal activism and relief—not because the U.S. government stepped in to help the victims of the flood, but because it didn’t, and the American public was outraged. Things changed after 1927. The Flood Control Act of 1928 was the most expensive single bill Congress had ever passed, and Barry sees it as a crucial first step towards the ambitious relief activities of the New Deal. But in the wake of the flood and right through the New Deal years, the prime beneficiaries of the new federal paternalism remained the region’s white planters.

The 1927 flood inspired dozens of songs, among them Memphis Millie’s “When the Levee Breaks,” covered by Zeppelin forty-five years later, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues,” and Bessie Smith’s “Muddy Water,” which I believe gave Muddy Waters his name. But I agree with Greil Marcus that Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” is one of the most affecting. It’s hard to resist that marvelous opening line—“what has happened down here, is the wind have changed”—all at once simple, mysterious, biblical, and American. I see that a lot of bloggers are using Newman’s lyrics in posts about Katrina, but most leave off the final verse:

President Coolidge come down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand
President say, “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”

I expect the bloggers quoting Newman worry his reference to “crackers” is insensitive. If you ask me, Louisiana has few chroniclers more sensitive and thoughtful than Randy Newman. But he never does come right out and tell you when he’s serious and when he’s kidding. And even if you do include that last verse, it still seems like the lines to really explain “Louisiana 1927” are missing. Is the song calling the flood an act of God or man? Is somebody exacting some kind of justice or revenge? Who is trying to wash who away?

Newman pictures Calvin Coolidge surveying the damage. But the man most associated with relief efforts at the time was Coolidge’s secretary of commerce, Herbert Hoover. (Maybe he’s the little fat man?) Hoover had of course made his name engineering famine relief in Europe after the First World War. And with no real precedents for federal disaster relief, the flood fell under the Commerce Department’s purview by virtue of its authority over interstate commerce on the Mississippi. Hoover’s efforts after the flood earned him immense positive publicity and helped put him in the White House in 1928. But his apparent abandonment of the Louisiana refugees in the months to come, it’s been argued, played a big part in splitting black voters from the party of Lincoln for good.

This is the second time you’ve read me struggling lamely here to pull lessons out of the tempest. There’s so much to say, so much that can’t be said, and so much that will be better said by people closer to the hurricane and more eloquent than I. So I’ll just sneak out the back of this post with another Randy Newman song, one that almost never gets played or quoted, “New Orleans Wins The War.” It's a happier song than “Louisiana 1927,” but just as mysterious and weird, about battles won and lost and wars forgotten or not yet fought, and New Orleans as a place both American and forever apart:

In 1948 my Daddy came to the city
Told the people that they'd won the war
Maybe they'd heard it, maybe not
Probably they'd heard it and just forgot
'Cause they built him a platform in Jackson Square
And the people came to hear him from everywhere
They started to party and they partied some more
'Cause New Orleans had won the war

(Crossposted at Old is the New New.)

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More Comments:

samm bennett - 10/14/2005

Much has been written here about Randy Newman's wonderful "Louisiana 1927", as well as other flood related songs of the past. I'd like to call your attention to a very contemporary song, which I've written about a very contemporary flood, the one which came to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. The song, entitled "New Orleans 2005", is not for sale, but rather is available as a free download. I think readers of HNN will find it worth their time to go to my website and listen to the song. I wrote and recorded it as an effort to channel and communicate some of my anger at the conspicuous lack of disaster relief, and at what I believe are the racist underpinnings of such lack. The ultra-simplistic arrangement (just a drone and voice) as well as its message are aspects of the song which may well appeal to readers of this site. You can find it at:

Thank you for your consideration,

Samm Bennett

PS: Here are the lyrics to the song, for your reading pleasure, although since it is a song, not a poem, I believe it is better heard than read.


see the black man down in New Orleans
waist deep in the flood waters wading
gunfire crackles in the distance
the last glimmer of daylight is fading
he didn't have much to begin with
now his world has come all unglued
he's on his way to bust into a grocery store
to get his family some water and food

now see the president up in his airplane
he says zero tolerance for looters
i tell one thing this president really knows how to do
is to send in the guns and the shooters
but less bullets more boats beds and blankets
and a few hundred lives he might save
ah, but blaming the victim is what we do best
here in the home of the brave

they say the president loves all americans
no matter the color or creed
but you decide for yourself where the real truth resides
is it found in the word or the deed?
if you say you don't think that it's racist
maybe this'll cut through your dense mental haze
just try and imagine a whole stadium full of white people
left to fend for themselves for six days
well i don't think it would've happened quite that way

now if there's good that can come from this tragedy
it's that maybe things'll get rearranged
lord knows over in washington d.c.
we're long overdue for regime change
one hundred eighty six million dollars they spend
on the war in iraq every day
with just a fraction of that
they could've shored up those levees
and kept the floodwaters at bay
they could've kept the floodwaters at bay

Walter McElligott - 9/7/2005

thanx for info on the Louisiana flood of 1927, in James Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth and John Barry’s Rising Tide.

Rob MacDougall - 9/7/2005

There is no natural disaster that robots cannot make better. Until the robots run amok, which (unless movies and TV have lied to me) they inevitably do.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/7/2005

How about we put Rob MacDougall in charge of FEMA? Put all that talent for robotery to good use.

Rob MacDougall - 9/7/2005

Thanks! It's good to be back. I was without internet and flooded with work (if it's not in bad taste to word it that way) for much of the summer, but I think I have things back under control.

Melissa Ann Spore - 9/7/2005

very interesting & so glad to hear from you again.

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