Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

I found this superb work of history from the song. Aaron Neville’s lament about the 1927 flood became a radio refrain following the New Orleans flood (and led to more diverse New Orleans music over at WWOZ). The song was written by Randy Newman, and the lyrics allude to the history that John Barry tells about human causes and social consequences of natural disaster.
“The river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines”
The Plaquemines Parish flooding in 1927 was manmade. A clique of bankers decided to protect New Orleans from flooding by breaking the levee south of New Orleans and inundate St. Bernard and Plaquemines parish, home to muskrat trappers and bootleggers. The city leaders promised to reimburse the people they flooded out, but they didn’t. They manipulated the laws and courts so people reporting damages had no recourse. In the aftermath, disgust with Louisiana’s traditional elite helped bring Huey Long to power.
President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The president say, ”Little fat man isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor farmer’s land.”
The “little fat man” is Herbert Hoover, an engineer-turned-politico whose leadership of flood relief logistics helped win Hoover the presidency. Coolidge never did tour the flooded region, but the condescension toward the poorest flood victims was historically accurate.
In Mississippi, local aristocrats refused to allow black people to be evacuated since they feared that their source of labor would never return. Instead, the black residents lived for months on top of the 8-foot-wide levee, trapped between the river and the flood. Men were forced to work without pay on levy repair and cleanup. After the floodwaters drained, many black people did leave for Chicago and other northern towns; the flood was one of the causes of the great African-American migration.
Hoover promised black leaders that he’d redistribute land to poor sharecroppers if elected, but he lied. Barry presents the evidence and the timeline of the betrayal, and argues that disillusion with these broken promises helped shift black voters from the Republican to the Democratic party.
The flood itself was made more severe by the flood control system, which used levees to contain the river, but left out spillways and reservoirs to divert floodwaters. Barry tells the story of the hubristic 19th century engineers who designed the system, and the bureaucratic incompetence and infighting that led to the system’s poor design. However, Barry doesn’t go as far as The Control of Nature, by John McPhee, and other books about the unintended consequences of the Mississippi levees.
Rising Tide is a masterful work of history that combines dramatic stories of heroism, villainy, conflict and suspense with social, political, and economic context. The book’s stories portray how the historical characters are shaped by their circumstances, and how their choices affect the course of history.
One imperfection is the author’s attraction to the heroic myths of 19th century self-made men and deep south aristocrats. Barry is a former football coach, and admires competitive, commanding masculine power. He typically admires his heroes’ height and physical strength, and is suprised when a character is short or not physically fit. Barry does not worship power uncritically. He holds his “great men” to an ethical standard; he honors LeRoy Percy’s opposition to the Klan, and criticizes LeRoy and his son Will for putting greed ahead of humanitarian rescue. In his admiration of machismo, Barry misses some of the ways that Southern aristocracy and engineering hubris contributed to their own failures.

2 thoughts on “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927”

  1. Actually, the original version as Newman wrote it hammers home the condescension even more. The line in Newman’s performance of the song is “Little fat man isn’t it a shame
    What the river has done to this poor *cracker’s* land.”… not just “farmer’s”….

  2. That also raises questions of race that I couldn’t figure out how to get into the blog post. The sharecroppers that the Percy’s didn’t let leave were black. The trappers and fishermen and smugglers whose livelihoods were drowned in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish were (I think) white.
    Was Randy Newman saying that Coolidge looked down on poor white folk but couldn’t see poor black folk? Did Newman say cracker instead of n***** in order to get radio play (that’s the reprehensible language the white politicians at the time would have used). Was Aaron Neville depoliticizing the song by using “farmer”, and by enunciating less clearly on the chorus “they’re trying to wash us away”.
    Either way, the aristocracy made things worse for the poor, and worse for poor black folk than poor white folk.

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