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'Louisiana 1927'

A song and a tragedy

By Todd Leopold

Two men make their way down a flooded road in the Mississippi Valley during the 1926-27 flood.


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Randy Newman
The Rolling Stones

(CNN) -- In 1926 and 1927, the Mississippi River, heavy from months of rain, started bursting its banks.

Land along the river flooded from Illinois on south. Memphis was overrun in the fall of 1926; the waters covered western Mississippi and eastern Louisiana in the months following. Seven hundred thousand people were evacuated or left homeless.

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain ...

New Orleans watched the Mississippi Valley floodwaters nervously. On a single day in April the city had received 14 inches of rain, which put parts of it under more than six feet of water; the French Quarter had two feet. If a levee broke, the city would be doomed.

Eventually, fearful townspeople prompted the governor to dynamite a levee south of town to relieve the pressure on New Orleans. The city was spared. Others in the state weren't so lucky.

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline ...

The flood, as chronicled in John M. Barry's book "Rising Tide," led to dramatic changes in the United States. It was a factor in the Great Migration of African-Americans to northern industrial cities, and many of the migrants wrote songs and tales about the Great Flood.

Louisiana, Louisiana, they're tryin' to wash us 'way, they're tryin' to wash us 'way
Louisiana, Louisiana, they're trying to wash us 'way, they're tryin' to wash us 'way. ...

I first heard Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" while growing up in New Orleans. The local radio stations always liked playing songs with Louisiana references: Gary U.S. Bonds' "New Orleans," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou," Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans," Louisiana LeRoux's "New Orleans Ladies." I don't now if the radio stations knew the history documented in the song or were completely ignorant of it and just liked the title. Whatever they thought, "Louisiana 1927" created its own mesmerizing power.

The song starts with plaintive strings, something out of the 19th century. Then Newman's humble voice comes on, singing lyrics at once as basic as a newsreel and as majestic as Homer.

The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right

New Orleans and I didn't fit; I left as soon as I could. But my heart breaks as I view the floodwaters lapping at building roofs, the city submerged as far as the eye can see.

The river has busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

My mother drove up ahead of the storm Saturday night. She's OK. But I worry about the house she left behind, about my old high school friends, about the avenues and architecture, about the people missing and homeless all along the devastated Gulf Coast. And my mind can't stop playing "Louisiana 1927."

Louisiana, Louisiana ...


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