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Backwater Blues

The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination

2014
Author:

Richard M. Mizelle Jr.

Backwater Blues

A broad examination of the flood that, prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was the most influential environmental disaster in American history

Backwater Blues analyzes the Mississippi River flood of 1927 through the lenses of race and charity, blues music, and mobility and labor. Challenging long-standing ideas of African American environmental complacency, it offers insights into the broader dynamics of human interactions with nature as well as ways in which nature is mediated through the social and political dynamics of race.

With this provocative study, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. gives new meaning to the 1927 Mississippi River flood. From forced displacements in relief camps to the inadequacies of Red Cross charity and the peonage labor system of the federally-funded Mississippi Flood Control Project, the Delta’s African Americans bore an unjust, debilitating burden. Mizelle’s genius lays in his use of alternative cultural texts to unearth the often hidden voices of African Americans who suffered the most in a disaster that both reflected and exaggerated the challenges of their everyday reality.

Kathleen Brosnan, University of Oklahoma

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in U.S. history, reshaping the social and cultural landscape as well as the physical environment. Often remembered as an event that altered flood control policy and elevated the stature of powerful politicians, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. examines the place of the flood within African American cultural memory and the profound ways it influenced migration patterns in the United States.

In Backwater Blues, Mizelle analyzes the disaster through the lenses of race and charity, blues music, and mobility and labor. The book’s title comes from Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” perhaps the best-known song about the flood. Mizelle notes that the devastation produced the richest groundswell of blues recordings following any environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, with more than fifty songs evoking the disruptive force of the flood and the precariousness of the levees originally constructed to protect citizens. Backwater Blues reveals larger relationships between social and environmental history. According to Mizelle, musicians, Harlem Renaissance artists, fraternal organizations, and Creole migrants all shared a sense of vulnerability in the face of both the Mississippi River and a white supremacist society. As a result, the Mississippi flood of 1927 was not just an environmental crisis but a racial event.

Challenging long-standing ideas of African American environmental complacency, Mizelle offers insights into the broader dynamics of human interactions with nature as well as ways in which nature is mediated through the social and political dynamics of race.

Includes discography.

Backwater Blues

Richard M. Mizelle Jr. is assistant professor of history at the University of Houston.

Backwater Blues

With this provocative study, Richard M. Mizelle Jr. gives new meaning to the 1927 Mississippi River flood. From forced displacements in relief camps to the inadequacies of Red Cross charity and the peonage labor system of the federally-funded Mississippi Flood Control Project, the Delta’s African Americans bore an unjust, debilitating burden. Mizelle’s genius lays in his use of alternative cultural texts to unearth the often hidden voices of African Americans who suffered the most in a disaster that both reflected and exaggerated the challenges of their everyday reality.

Kathleen Brosnan, University of Oklahoma

A well-written account of the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood. A nuanced and profound treatment of the blues. A work of lasting importance.

CHOICE

Mizelle’s book is the freshest and most engaging in the sections that deal intensively with blues artists and lyrics.

American Historical Review

Mizelle brings a fresh perspective to a well-researched topic.

Journal of American History

Backwater Blues

Contents

Introduction: John Lee Hooker’s Blues

1. Down the Line: Blues Brilliance, Displacement, and Living under the Shadow of Levees
2. Burning Waters Rise: Richard Wright’s Blues Voice and the Double Environmental Burden of Race
3. Racialized Charity and the Militarization of Flood Relief in Postwar America
4. Where Sixteen Railroads Meet the Sea: Migration and the Making of Houston’s Frenchtown
5. Everyday Seems Like Murder Here: The Mississippi Flood Control Project in New Deal–Era America

Conclusion: When the Levee Breaks

Notes
Selected Discography
Index