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introduction John Lee Hooker’s Blues What I know of the Mississippi are facts, and facts are the uncut jewels which grind false theories to powder. —James Eads, Engineer It Rained and It Rained The sheer breadth of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 continues to present an interesting challenge to scholars. While other disasters such as the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina might have resulted in more physical damage and loss of life, the 1927 flood stands alone in the ways in which it influenced both environmental policy and culture. No other single environmental catastrophe affected so many states and encompassed such a wide area of devastation. Hurricane Katrina, now universally considered the worst environmental disaster in American history, destroyed property and claimed lives in the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The 1927 flood affected seven states, resulting in a logistical nightmare for the federal government and the American people in terms of how best to respond to citizens in need. Scholarship on the 1927 flood is similarly uneven, with a heavy focus on Mississippi, Louisiana, and to a lesser degree, Arkansas. We know very little about how the 1927 flood played out locally in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, or Tennessee, and just a bit more about how it played out in Arkansas. It would be extremely difficult to write a monograph on the 1927 flood that provided equal attention to all seven states. Historians Robyn Spencer, Pete Daniel, and John Barry have made clear the importance of the 1 2 introduction 1927 flood’s aftermath for understanding local Yazoo Mississippi Delta politics and how the disaster set the stage for the ascendency of an Iowan with Quaker roots by the name of Herbert Hoover to the White House.1 For these scholars and others the focus on Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas was the result of thinking through race and politics in places where segregation and violence toward African Americans was the most egregious, and where the backwaters overflowed cotton-producing areas considered by the country to be at the heart of the region and America’s future prosperity. Backwater Blues also focuses mostly on the Yazoo Mississippi Delta, Louisiana , and through migration patterns, Texas. I focus on these areas because it was not until areas of the lower Mississippi Valley were inundated with backwaters that the federal government and nation began to take notice and mobilize resources around the disaster, and because the cultural commentators who bore witness to the flood were most familiar with the Yazoo Delta. At times in the following pages, however, the narrative is necessarily rootless in terms of place. By framing parts of the disaster through a historical blues and literary archive, I am not so much talking about particular places as describing universal experiences of blackness and citizenship in America. The Mississippi River has meant different things to different people across space and time, and not everyone feels like Mark Twain when confronted withoneofnature’smostpowerfulwonders.ProverbiallyknownastheFather ofRivers,theMississippiRiverstretchescloseto2,500milesfromitsoriginin northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico and has a drainage basin encompassing 1.2 million square miles; only South America’s Amazon RiverandtheCongoRiverinWestCentralAfricasurpassit.2 The Mississippi River and tributaries move like a pulsating bloodline through thirty-one U.S. states and two Canadian provinces; by the turn of the twentieth century it provided not only life-sustaining water and rich alluvial soil but also a transportation network of goods and commerce vital to the entire country’s prosperity .3 This vast network of tributaries and distributaries (tributaries are smaller water systems that flow into a larger body of water, while distributaries are smaller bodies of water that break away from a water system and form their own channel), which includes the Missouri River, Illinois River, Ohio River, Tennessee River, St. Frances and White Rivers in Arkansas, Arkansas River, Yazoo River in Mississippi, and Ouachita, Red, Atchafalaya, Old, introduction 3 Morganza, and Bonnet Carre Rivers in Louisiana, connects the main stem Mississippi River to roughly 40 percent of the coterminous United States.4 A series of floodplains, drainage basins, runoffs, tributaries, distributaries , swamps, marshes, headwaters, and backwaters in the upper and lower halves of the Mississippi River have come to define its complicated hydraulic makeup. The area most well known in culture and memory is the YazooMississippi floodplain, approximately two hundred miles long and eighty mileswide,makingupthedynamicenvironmentalandculturalregionknown as the Yazoo Mississippi Delta. This region forms the backdrop of this book as both...


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