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The Flood Blues


I’m standing in this water, wishing I had a boat
I’m standing in this water, wishing I had a boat
The only way I see is take my clothes and float

Sippie Wallace, “The Flood Blues”

When Beulah “Sippie” Wallace recorded “The Flood Blues” on a spring day in 1927, she sang about a familiar topic. Born in 1898, Wallace spent her childhood in the flood-prone city of Houston. Her hometown regularly experienced torrential downpours that caused local bayous to overflow. Between 1836 and 1936, residents of Harris County suffered through sixteen major floods. Flooding devastated downtown Houston in 1913 when Wallace was a teenager. Two years later in 1915, the city flooded again after a category-4 hurricane struck nearby Galveston.

In the year 1927, dozens of records like “The Flood Blues” captured black southern despair over the Great Mississippi Flood, which left a swath of destruction in multiple states, from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Blues musician Lonnie Johnson recorded the first of these flood songs, “Broken Levee Blues,” just nine days after a levee broke near Greenville, Mississippi. Heavy rains had swept the Mississippi River Valley from August 1926 until the following spring, causing the river to overflow. By mid-April the New York Times reported that 7,500 square miles of the Mississippi Valley were underwater and 60,000 people had lost their homes. The flood eventually affected some 27,000 miles of land, mostly in the South. In his book, Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination, historian Richard M. Mizelle, Jr. writes, “No other single environmental catastrophe affected so many states and encompassed such a wide area of devastation.”[1]

The rising waters exacerbated the ever-present racial disparities of the Jim Crow South. As reports of the flood filled national newspapers, journalists noted the effects on black southerners. The Times noted the “Negro tenant farmers” that made up the majority of levee towns on the river had lost nearly all of their possessions. In some areas, groups of armed white people forced African Americans to work on the levees so that white families could flee. Fearing their labor force would evacuate, white plantation owners in Inverness, Mississippi, thwarted black workers’ attempts to leave the area.[2]

When she performed “The Flood Blues” for a 1927 session with Okeh Records, Wallace had been living in Chicago for four years. A cornet player named Louis Armstrong, another recent arrival from the South, joined the band during the session. Armstrong had moved from New Orleans to Chicago in 1922 after bandleader Joseph “King” Oliver invited him to join his Creole Jazz Band. By the time he participated in the session that produced “The Flood Blues,” Armstrong had left Oliver’s band and formed his own ensemble. But he frequently played cornet (and by the late ’20s, trumpet) during recording sessions for blues singers like Sippie Wallace and Bessie Smith. Recorded in May, just one month after major flooding began, the collaboration between Wallace and Armstrong connected both southern migrants to their hometowns—Gulf Coast cities that frequently experience flooding.

“The Flood Blues” tells a story of race and place. Wallace’s sorrowful vocals and Armstrong’s wailing cornet offer a musical articulation of the enduring relationship between Texans and Louisianans during catastrophic natural disasters. Floods especially have linked people of color from these Gulf Coast states, causing mass migrations between the states that led to demographic and cultural transformation.

The water is rising, people fleeing for the hills
The water is rising, people fleeing for the hills
Lord, the water will obey if you just say, “Be still”

Louisiana migrants reshaped Houston during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Thousands of French-speaking evacuees moved to the city after fleeing the swamps of southwest Louisiana. Many of the migrants identified as Creoles of color—descendants of free people of color who had not been enslaved before the Civil War. Their ancestors were the racially mixed offspring of African women and French or Spanish men. They tended to view themselves as a different racial group from descendants of slaves. “Creoles of color had an exclusive identity,” writes historian Blair L.M. Kelley, “their sense of self was fixed in the past, drawn from their French ancestors and their forebears’ free status in the age of slavery.”[3] Since Jim Crow targeted all people of African descent, Creoles of color were “Negroes” in the eyes of the law. Nevertheless, they considered themselves a distinct group, and those who moved to Houston built a community where they could preserve their traditions and identity. Creoles of color settled in the Fifth Ward on the north side of the city, where they established a neighborhood called Frenchtown. Houstonians referred to the newcomers as “Frenchmen.”

The settlement of Frenchtown altered the culture of the city. By 1930 just under twenty percent of black Houston hailed from Louisiana. A weekly black-owned newspaper called the Houston Informer added a section called “New Orleans News” that contained articles about Louisiana. The sounds of Houston music also bore the imprint of Creole influence. By World War II, Creoles had combined a musical style they called la-la, which they played with accordions and rubboards, with Texas blues. People in Frenchtown called that hybrid musical form zarico or zologo—anglicized pronunciations of the French word for beans, “les haricots.” (“Les haricots sont pas sales” was the name of a popular la-la tune.) Music collector and folklorist Robert McCormick standardized the spelling for zydeco when he visited Houston in 1949. The genre was the musical outgrowth of Creole community building, created by migrants who built new lives in Houston after leaving the flooded parishes of southwestern Louisiana two decades earlier.

They sent out alarms for everybody to leave town
They sent out alarms for everybody to leave town
But when I got the news, I was high water bound

Nearly eighty years after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a new wave of Louisianans relocated to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On August 29, 2005, a category-5 hurricane caused fifty-three different levee breaches in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Rising waters left eighty percent of the city underwater. Between 150,000 to 250,000 evacuees fled to Houston, where they found emergency shelter. But for thousands, the move to Texas would not be temporary; an estimated 90,000 people chose to remain in the city after the flood. The influx of Katrina evacuees in 2005 was just the most recent example of Louisianans moving west to Texas during natural disasters.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August and September of 2017, Louisianans travelled to Texas for a different reason. This time volunteers took part in rescue and recovery efforts after floodwaters ravaged southeastern Texas. Houstonians have faced several storms and floods in the last two decades—including Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Hurricane Ike in 2008, and the Tax Day Floods of 2016—but Hurricane Harvey caused the most devastation. AccuWeather president Joel Myers estimates Harvey’s damage will cost a total of $190 billion. In the days following the storm, a volunteer group called the “Cajun Navy” made the trek from Baton Rouge to Texas with boats to aid their neighbors to the west.

The ongoing history of flooding on the Gulf Coast makes “The Flood Blues” as relevant today as it was in 1927. The collaboration between the Texas blues singer and the Louisiana-born horn player especially points to a shared history of suffering and survival in the region. Whether seeking respite from rising waters or aiding others during times of crisis, generations of Louisianans have made the journey to the Lone Star State. From the devastation of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the recent disaster of Hurricane Harvey, storms and floods have connected Texans and Louisianans for nearly a century.

Tyina Steptoe is an associate professor of History at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City (University of California Press, 2016).

[1] Richard M. Mizelle, Jr., Backwater Blues: The Mississippi Flood of 1927 in the African American Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 1.

[2] David Evans, “High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood,” in Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History, Robert Springer, ed. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006) 7-8.

[3]Blair L.M. Kelley, Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 59.