MS River Blues

MS River Blues - Scott

Blues singers have recorded many songs in response to natural disasters, none more dramatic than those about the great flood of the Mississippi River that inundated much of the Delta after the levee broke just 2-3/4 miles west of this site on April 21, 1927. Big Bill Broonzy, a world-famous bluesman who claimed Scott as his hometown, recorded several songs about floods and at his concerts he told vivid stories of the devastation and disruption the 1927 flood caused his family and thousands of others.

Big Bill Broonzy was one of many African American singers who documented floods of the Mississippi or other rivers in story or song. Charley Patton’s “High Water Everywhere – Part I” and Barbecue Bob’s “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” described the Great Flood of 1927, while Broonzy recorded “Terrible Flood Blues” and “Southern Flood Blues” in the wake of the 1937 flooding of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and later also recorded versions of Bessie Smith’s 1927 classic, “Back Water Blues.”

The 1927 flood was a tragedy of Biblical proportions. Despite frantic efforts to shore up the levees after record rainfalls and overflows in tributaries to the river, a break occurred near here at Mounds Landing (identified as Mound Landing or Mound Crevasse on more recent maps). Water cascaded through a crevasse a half-mile wide, and within ten days, ten feet of water had covered a million acres and displaced thousands of people. The first structures destroyed included the cotton sharecroppers’ tenant shacks that stood here on the property of Delta and Pine Land Company. In the aftermath of the flood recording companies sought out songs by blues, gospel, country, and pop artists. The blues songs that were recorded during the next few years addressed the physical destruction and human loss wrought by the flood, and some also alluded to the social injustices faced by African Americans who were forced to labor on levees and to live in refugee camps.

Big Bill Broonzy, whose real name was Lee Bradley, was born on June 26, 1903, near Lake Dick, Arkansas, outside Pine Bluff, although as an adult he identified Scott, Mississippi, as his birthplace. After moving to Chicago in the 1920s he launched a prolific recording career that made him one of the most popular blues musicians of the 1930s and ’40s. Broonzy served as a mentor to Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Memphis Slim, and also inspired British musicians such as Eric Clapton and Ray Davies when his European tours of the 1950s sparked a passion for the blues among overseas audiences. His autobiography Big Bill Blues, published in 1955, skillfully mixed tall tales with keenly-observed portraits of his family and musical colleagues. In his book, as in his song, “Black, Brown and White,” Broonzy spoke out against racial inequality in America in an ironic but forceful tone. On the landmark album Blues in the Mississippi Night, produced by folklorist Alan Lomax, Big Bill led a conversation with John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and Memphis Slim in which they described relations between blacks and whites in the rural South in alternately horrifying and entertaining terms. Broonzy died in Chicago on August 15, 1958, and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980.

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