In this Book


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 by countless singers 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.

Table of Contents

  1. Cover
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  1. Title Page, Copyright Page
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  1. Contents
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  1. Acknowledgments
  2. pp. ix-xii
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  1. Introduction: John Lee Hooker’s Blues
  2. pp. 1-24
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  1. 1 Down the Line: Blues Brilliance, Displacement, and Living under the Shadow of Levees
  2. pp. 25-50
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  1. 2 Burning Waters Rise: Richard Wright’s Blues Voice and the Double Environmental Burden of Race
  2. pp. 51-74
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  1. 3 Racialized Charity and the Militarization of Flood Relief in Postwar America
  2. pp. 75-100
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  1. 4 Where Sixteen Railroads Meet the Sea: Migration and the Making of Houston’s Frenchtown
  2. pp. 101-122
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  1. 5 Every Day Seems Like Murder Here: The Mississippi Flood Control Project in New Deal–Era America
  2. pp. 123-150
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  1. Conclusion: When the Levee Breaks
  2. pp. 151-160
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  1. Notes
  2. pp. 161-190
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  1. Selected Discography
  2. pp. 191-192
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  1. Index
  2. pp. 193-210
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  1. About the Author
  2. pp. 211-211
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Additional Information

Print ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access

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