Goin’ down to the Delta,
lookin’ for a brand new rhyme,
Gonna find me a clock
that don’t tell a single time,
Gonna find me a river
where the muddy waters flow just fine.
Interstate highways are fine things. For my generation, one that always considered “going for a drive” a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment, the beginning of the interstate highway system meant an expansion of freedom and an increased sense of mobility, a sense greatly encouraged by speed limit signs suggesting drivers determine their own “Reasonable and Proper” speed.
Today’s speed regulators aren’t quite so laissez-faire, but by the time those signs disappeared I’d learned a thing or two about the difference between driving and traveling. Today I worry less about making time and focus more on spending time – rather different pursuits, no matter where you’re traveling.
Between Memphis and Vicksburg, a driver can make great time on the interstates. But to the west of I-55 and north of I-20 lies a fertile, alluvial plain whose richness of culture and history equals the richness of its soil. Bounded by the Yazoo to the east and the Mississippi to the west, the Mississippi Delta is shaped, nourished and occasionally destroyed by the rivers that roll along her edges. Experiencing her life requires a little slowing down.
Meander down Highway 61, the nearly mythical “blues highway” bisecting the Delta, and the names tick off as easily as the miles: Tunica, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville, Hollandale. If you’ve taken a side trip or two into Friar’s Point, Stovall, Dockery or Holly Ridge, by the time you come tumblin’ into Rolling Fork you’ll know whose marker and gazebo grace the town square.
Muddy liked to say he was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi in 1915, but his actual birth took place in neighboring Jug’s Corner, Issaquena County, in 1913. Originally named McKinley Morganfield, he became “Muddy” not because of the Big Muddy (a familiar nickname for the Mississippi River) but because of his childhood fondness for playing in mud. Eventually, he added “Water” and then “Waters” to Muddy, and the name stuck.
Despite the genesis of his name, like every Mississippi bluesman he emulated or inspired Muddy sang about the River and its floods, especially the catastrophic flood of 1927. Chronicled by John M. Barry in his masterful book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How it Changed America, the flood was an almost unimaginable disaster.
Images such as those captured by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in their silent films reveal instances of touching humanity in the midst of the ravaging waters, but after Major John Lee, the Army district engineer in Vicksburg “wired General Edgar Jadwin, head of the Corps of Engineers, ‘Levee broke at ferry landing Mounds Mississippi eight A.M. Crevasse will overflow entire Mississippi Delta”, history turned. As Barry says, “Things never would be the same again.” 
Ironically, one of the best known flood songs of that era, Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues, was recorded February 17, 1927, two months before the Mississippi broke through the levee at Mound Landing. Historians who’ve examined her touring itinerary, newspaper reports and other documents conclude the song references the Cumberland River flood in Nashville on Christmas morning, 1926. It hardly matters. A flood’s a flood, no matter which way it flows, and Bessie sang the truth:
Backwater blues done call me to pack my things and go
Backwater blues done call me to pack my things and go
‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no more…
There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go
Big Bill Broonzy, who claimed Scott, Mississippi as his home, sang Southern Flood Blues and Terrible Flood Blues as both the Ohio and Mississippi rose around him. Robert “Barbeque Bob” Hicks recalled “Mississippi shakin’ [and] Louisiana sinkin'” in his forceful Mississippi Heavy Water Blues. John Hurt watched the Sliding Delta slide right past his door and Lonnie Johnson dared tell the truth about one of the most difficult realities of the 1927 flood in his Broken Levee Blues (1928).
I want to go back to Helena, but the high water’s got me barred.
Said, I woke up this morning with the water all in my back yard.
The water’s all up ’round my windows, backin’ up in my door.
I’ve got to leave my home. Said, I can’t stay here no more.
They want me to work on the levee, they’re coming to take me down.
I’m scared the levee may break, ah…and I might drown.
The police run me out from Cairo, all through Arkansas.
And they threw me in jail, behind these cold iron bars.
They said, “Work, fight or go to jail”. I said, “I ain’t totin’ no sacks.
I won’t drown on that levee and you ain’t gonna break my back.”
For blacks in 1927, water wasn’t the only thing barring them from heading for higher ground. In 1927, earthen levees were the primary defense against river flooding and maintaining the levees required manpower. In Mississippi, sharecroppers and convicts from Parchman Penitentiary worked alongside blacks who had been rounded up at gunpoint and forced into camps along the top of the levee to continue the dangerous work of reinforcement.
In towns on both sides of the river, every morning the police ran patrols through the black neighborhoods and grabbed black men off the street to send them to the levee. If a black man refused, he was beaten or jailed or both; more than one man was shot. In Greenville, from the corner of Broadway and Nelson streets, every morning trucks full of black men left, depositing a new load of workers fifteen miles upriver. Two or three times a day the trucks went up there. Wynn Davis, a black man, drove the trucks, and says, “The first of April I started carrying people up there. Never saw any white people on the levee working. I only saw the people I carried up.” 
As the water rose, levee guards filled sandbags, placing them atop the levee in an attempt to stay ahead of the water. As rains that had saturated the Upper Midwest moved into the South, two levee areas north of Greenville (a town of about 15,000) caused special concern: Miller Bend and Mound Landing. On Wednesday, April 20, 450 men were working to secure the levee at Mound Landing.
The men had no time to build a proper base. The waves p0unded the levee and washed over them as they worked. They were freezing – the temperature was in the low forties. At a site a mile north the situation seemed even more dangerous; several thousand more men were working there…
At 6:30 word flashed down – a small break in the levee had appeared… Within half an hour 1,500 men were working on the low spot. By then the flow of water had grown to the size of a roaring stream…
Hundreds of blacks, held by guns, began risking their lives for someone they had to see as a white fool. Under the guns they filled sandbags, threw them into the breach, passed them down the line to men standing in the breach. The water poured through in a growing torrent, washing the sandbags away as fast as they threw them in. Under their feet the levee quivered, shook. The breach was wider, deeper. The river was overflowing the levee along a front of several miles… 
The levee at Mound Landing gave way on the morning of April 21, 1927. It wasn’t the first crevasse and it wouldn’t be the last, but it would become particularly significant. As the muddy water raged unchecked, more than a levee was disintegrating before its power.
William Alexander Percy, son of Mississippi Senator Le Roy Percy, chaired the Red Cross Disaster Relief Committee in his state both during and after the flood. Percy’s first inclination was to evacuate workers trapped on the levees, but the majority had lost homes and jobs in the flood.
Fearing that the loss of these men and their families would deprive area plantations of cheap labor, plantation owners demanded Percy abandon efforts to rescue the trapped workers. Influenced by forces he barely comprehended, including the intervention of his father with the plantation owners, Percy complied. Just as blacks had been impressed into service by force prior to the levee collapse, black males who tried to leave the levees were returned at gunpoint by the National Guard.
Whatever we think today of Percy and his decisions, he clearly understood the natural forces surrounding him. “With us,” he said, “when you speak of ‘the River,’ though there be many, you mean always the same one, the great River, the shifting, unappeasable god of the country, feared and loved, the Mississippi.”
T.S. Eliot, another writer with experience of the Mississippi, no doubt knew Percy’s work. These lines from The Dry Salvages, part of Eliot’s Four Quartets, sound remarkably like the continuation of a conversation between the two men.
I do not know much about gods;
but I think that the river is a strong brown god–sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities–ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons, and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonored, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
Today, the phrase “strong brown god” is apt. The muddy waters are flowing, and anyone who has seen the roiling, swollen reality of an unbanked river knows that, like the Lord, the River giveth and the River taketh away. “Waiting, watching and waiting” can be extraordinarily difficult. More difficult is accepting the River’s reminders of a long-established truth: the world charts its own course. We inhabit it for a season, we may even feel at home in its fields, woods and streams, but ultimately it is beyond our ability to control.
As with all human conceits – that things will remain as they are, that blind, immutable forces cannot destroy the frail structures we construct for ourselves – it is tempting to imagine the rivers to be trustworthy, capable of being tamed. A good flood washes away that false sense of pride, leaving it to the story-tellers and singers, the parents and children, the displaced and the restored to cherish and pass on the wisdom of the flood. “Remember who you are,” the muddy waters sing as they roll on down the Delta. “Remember who you are, but remember as well the nature of the River.”