The Daily

High Water Everywhere

It’s a day for the blues.

There’s nothing like a toe-tapper about a mass casualty event. When it comes down to it, that’s all the blues are about: making the insufferable thing bearable. In High Water Everywhere, Charley Patton sang about the 1927 Mississippi levee break that displaced tens of thousands. Patton lived on Dockery’s Plantation near Greenville, Mississippi, where the Army Corps of Engineers built a system of earthen wall barriers designed to control the Mississippi River. In the spring of 1927, the River flooded. The levee groaned before failing. Greenville residents are described as watching from the streets below as riverboats floated high above them on the topped levees of the cresting river before it broke. In many parts, the disaster was slow-moving. The muddy wall of water (described by some as seven feet high) moved across bottom land at a pace of fourteen miles a day. In the tense aftermath of the flood, riots and violence broke out between whites and blacks – who felt impressed into service of the recovery efforts and were forced into centralized tent camps that may have felt more like prison or slave camps.

None of this is mentioned in Patton’s song High Water Everywhere, but the feeling of dread, chaos, and confusion that permeated the Mississippi low country in early 1927 surely comes through. The blues idiom is like that – simultaneously and intensely personal and universal, putting the singer at the very center of a universally appreciated narrative of difficulty and sometimes tragedy.

Backwater at Blytheville, backed up all around
Backwater at Blytheville, done took Joiner town
It was fifty families and children come to sink and drown

The water was risin’ up at my friend’s door
The water was risin’ up at my friend’s door
The man said to his women folk, “Lord, we’d better go”