Muddy Waters

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.
~ Mississippi Writin’ Blues

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.” [1]

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.”  [2]

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… [3]

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.”

1. John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1997), 201.
2. Barry, Rising Tide, 195-196.
3. Barry, Rising Tide, 200-201.
Comments are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, please click below.

57 thoughts on “Muddy Waters

  1. Thanks for an excellent post. No man can contol the mighty Mississippi river. We just have to endure and live with it flood or low level.

    1. hoboduke,

      We all learn the lessons, one way or another – hurricanes, fire, floods, tornados. I suppose the good news is that sometimes we get to prevail, as well as to endure. That surely is my hope for the folks along this Mississippi this year.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the comment. You’re always welcome!


  2. Bet you didn’t know I once lived in Greenville. I was Santa Claus for the Christmas parade in Greenwood, which was also the home of Jim Henson. I got dressed in the Jim Henson museum.

    1. symonsez,

      You get around, I’ll give you that. ;-)

      I’ve been missing my bits of daily history. With connections to that part of the country, I imagine you’ve got some stories to tell, both researched and personal. The Mississippi History Now site has some fabulous eye-witness accounts of the events in Greenville – those people were tough!

      Good to see you – thanks for stopping by!


      ADD: Ask and ye shall receive, I see. I’m off to enjoy your new offering.

  3. A brilliant post, Linda. I would never have thought of Eliot’s Four Quartets connected with the Mississippi, and of course these lines are there in the brown river, and in all your layers of story telling. You manage to be lyrical, historical, woeful, and hopeful, I think, while you expose these things to us so thoroughly.

    1. Ruth,

      Eliot’s so firmly connected with England in the collective mind it can be easy to forget his roots in St. Louis. In fact, it wasn’t until I read “The Dry Salvages” about three years ago and thought, “That sure sounds like the Mississippi” that I went poking about and discovered the connection.

      “Brilliant” is such a wonderful compliment – and not because of any implication that brilliant is equivalent to being really, really smart. “Brilliant” calls to mind the process of diamond cutting, the process from planning to polishing that allows a gem to sparkle. Trust me – this hunk of history is huge, and if this piece of it shines, it’s only because there was a whole lotta’ cutting going on around here. ;-)


  4. Any reference to songs about the 1927 flood must include Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”. It was written in 1974 but gained new popularity following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and, unfortunately, it’s appropriate once again.

    1. Al,

      Newman’s song is wonderful – poignant and powerful. It wasn’t in my post only because I made a conscious decision to focus on the mid-Delta and bluesmen from that time and place. I was sure someone would tuck it into the comments, and you’ve done us the honor.

      It’s impossible for me to hear it and not remember events stretching back in time well beyond 1927. One of my treasures is an etching from Harper’s Magazine showing the 1851 flood on the Bayou Teche. Water, boats, people – the images don’t change much.

      Thanks so much for the addition.


  5. Hi Linda:

    Once more you have selected the right words to give us a picture of man and nature exchanging jabs.

    I flavored your words, “The muddy waters are flowing, and anyone who has seen the roiling, swollen reality of a unbanked river knows that, like the Lord, the River giveth and the River taketh away.”

    While reading your blog post, I remembered the mighty waters of a recent gargantuan Tsunami in Japan. No levees could hold those waters back. The liquid blanket spread and covered…and killed.

    It’s so true, Nature giveth and Nature taketh.

    Thank you Linda for reminding us how vulnerable and fragile we are, no matter what we say or what we boast.



    1. Omar,

      While reading Barry’s book “Rising Tide”, I was struck by the tsunami-like descriptions by eyewitnesses to the flood. The water poured across the Delta for days, and in depths we barely can conceive.

      It’s also true we humans have a tendency to overestimate our ability to cope with such disasters. In Japan, they were certain their nuclear plants could withstand an earthquake, but events overtook them. With our Hurricane Ike, forecasts based on projected wind speeds lulled some folks into a false sense of security, and then the storm surge did them in.

      And in one of the most head-shaking, smile-of-recognition producing statements I found in relation to the 1927 flood, there is this: “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was confident the dikes would hold, right up to the moment they failed.”

      I don’t know why that seems so funny to me – I suppose because it’s just so darned human!


  6. Linda,

    The river flood washes away the false sense of pride. Indeed it does. In the 1930s along the Colorado River in Texas, near Lampasas and San Saba, the river rose so much you could not see the opposite bank. It imprinted its power on my family. They had built on high ground and lived with the wisdom that it could and would rise again. They might till on bottom land, but never live there.

    You are a fabulous writer and draw together such fine and substantial connections. I’m so glad I found your blog.

    (Thanks for your extended comment on Frank Waters on my blog.)


    1. Jack,

      “Imprinted” is exactly the right word. In 1951, I was five years old, and we had come from Iowa to vacation in Kansas City at my aunt and uncle’s home. When the flood came, we couldn’t leave the city. Eventually, they began opening the bridge for limited periods of time and we made it out. The memory of crossing that bridge is as clear as the view out my window this morning – particularly the rail cars and dead cattle floating along just below us.

      Eventually, I began spending time in the Hill Country and the phrases “low water crossing” and “watered in” entered my vocabulary. I learned to pay attention.

      I do appreciate your kind words. There’s much pleasure to be had in discovering and re-discovering these bits of history that surround us, and sharing them with other folks.


  7. I am so glad I found your blog via Sage to Meadow and your thoughtful comments left there. You are one very fine writer and have developed a true treasure trove from which you draw substantial references found here, within your posts. Outstanding.

    1. Teresa Evangeline,

      You’re very kind. Thank you. Lawrence Durrell in his “Alexandria Quartet” says the task of the writer is to “rework reality to show its significant side”. After three years of writing, I’m just beginning to understand his words, and that’s what I try to do.

      “Treasure trove” is such a fine phrase and, really – isn’t that what life is for us? I dig around in life like I used to dig in my grandmother’s button box. Eventually something catches my eye, I pull it out, polish it up and say to whoever’s around, “Hey! Look at this!”

      I’m glad you enjoyed looking!


  8. A wonderful piece of writing, especially the way you wove culture, history, and geography. Very entertaining and beautiful.

    I’m a big Muddy Waters fan. What is so incredible is that he succeeded beyond normal limits despite the racial climate.

    This post is perfectly timed. The mighty Mississippi rolls over her banks once again. There is no controlling her dynasty or power. We can only watch and stay away.

    Thanks for all of this. Nothing less than spectacular.

    1. Wild_Bill,

      I watched this morning as the Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway. While I was watching, I browsed gages in assorted Vicksburg and New Orleans District basins and thought to myself,”Whatever would those folks from 1927 think?” (One thing they would think is, “Dang! Wish we’d had those gizmos!”)

      Technology isn’t a final answer, of course. Memphis still is flooding, and mid-Delta backwater levees may be overtopped. If they open the Morganza spillway, people who’ve dealt with multiple hurricanes, the BP oil spill and wetland loss will face another challenge.

      It’s not easy. It’s never been easy. But we learn how to cope and we learn important lessons. Some folks learn that when there’s no electricity, the cell tower’s down, the iPad got wet and they’re up to their knees in muddy water, they still can sing the blues. ;)

      Thanks for the kind words – let’s hope the river shows a little kindness, too.


    1. Claudia,

      Look at you, bringing in one of my favorites! We’ve got the six degrees of separation thing going on here – McDowell influenced R.L.Burnside, whose grandson Cedric, together with Lightnin’ Malcolm, played a great set with T-Model Ford and Cedell Davis in Clarksdale my first year there at the Juke Joint Festival.

      McDowell recorded on the Fat Possum label out of Oxford, too. That name makes me laugh every time I think of it.

      I’m glad you liked the post. Here’s a little river song from McDowell for you. It’s not a flood song, but rivers don’t always flood. ;-)


        1. Isn’t that the truth!? On the other hand, if I was on that porch it might be ok for it to be $10/gal. I’d not be worrying about going anywhere, anyhow…

  9. Thank you Linda. Your tales of the Delta and its people truly touch my heart. It’s very evident in your tales that the Delta has touched yours. As someone who was born and lived my 51 years in the Mississippi Delta, It’s always a pleasure to see the Delta through your eyes.


    1. Keith,

      I’ve done some of the best traveling in my life there in the Delta. I’m ready to go back, though it will be a while before that happens.

      In the meantime, writing down some of the experiences I’ve had and pondering what makes it so special is a good substitute. Well, that and listening to the music. It’s always good when someone who’s from a place can recognize their home when I write about it.

      Keep an eye on that water. You’ve got one of the best perches in the world to watch it rise. ;-)


  10. What particularly caught my eyes were the two words, “silent film”. It’s interesting that we both go back in time lately, yes, even to the 1920’s.

    Thanks for writing about a piece of history that I as a Canuck would never have learned. And again, I’m always bemused at how you can connect, here, the mighty M. River, Nature and her power, with The Four Quartet, guitars and Blues.

    1. Arti,

      I remember watching newsreels at the movies as a kid, but by that time they had sound. On the other hand, mom remembers silent films as a commonplace, and the silent newsreels.

      There’s something so – affecting – about the newsreel I included, and this one from Illinois, also from 1927. We’re so accustomed to sound – even if it’s just background music – the silence can be unnerving. And isn’t the use of text to link the images interesting? We’ve talked about books “vs” films – these newsreels are almost a hybrid. They have to be both seen and read.

      I was surprised to see a parallel to the Mississippi flooding in Canada just now. The Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba are rising, and they’re contemplating an intentional breach in the levee just as they did a few days ago at New Madrid. A friend in Portage la Prairie is watching very, very closely.

      As for being a history-challenged Canuck, there are plenty of folks living in the midst of this flooding who don’t know the history, either. Three years ago, I certainly didn’t know any of this, but I’m learning as fast as I can. ;-)


  11. Arkansas, along with surrounding states, is experiencing one of the worst floods in quite a few years. Definitely the worst I’ve seen. Roads are closed, our county is surrounded by flooded counties and the roads are blocked in all directions, including access to Little Rock. Life is inconvenient, but not deadly or disastrous like those flooded out.

    Interesting amount of history you’ve shared. Some things never change. I saw a news clip of the prisoners working with sandbags this week. It’s still a common practice. The guards sit on horseback with shotguns and the prisoners in our county still where black and white stripes. Of course one has to remember these prisoners are eligible for this detail because of good behavior and it’s volunteer. I guess it beats the inside of a cell.

    1. sherri,

      I was startled to read that the Arkansas Farm Bureau says a million acres of farmland are under water in your state. One of the most touching stories I’ve read (and lost – always bookmark!) was about a Mississippi farmer who plowed up his wheat fields to get dirt to create levees around his rice bins – trying to save harvested grain, worrying about replanting later. It’s one of the less obvious stories of this flood – the hidden levees, the ones built by individuals and families in an attempt to stave off disaster.

      I understand decisions like the one to intentionally breach the New Madrid levee, but I grieve for the farmers.

      I first saw prisoners in black and white stripes two years ago. I was in Louisiana at the time, and I felt as though I’d time-traveled. I’m not sure those prisoners were there because of good behavior, though – or that they’d volunteered. Their black-and-white striped outfits were accessorized with chains.


  12. Al beat me to Louisiana 1927 but I was going to do the Marcia Ball Version. So I give you this, instead.

    I lived on Highway 61 for three years while going to college in Canton, Mo., and then again at its terminus in New Orleans for another 10 and I can vouch for the fact that it is, indeed, a weird road.

    1. Richard,

      My gosh. I’ve never heard of Karen O or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – reasonable, since the band didn’t get started until 2000. The woman can do Dylan, I’ll say that.

      I’ve done some of 61 on its northern end, too. We had family in Winona, MN, and when we were going up there we’d go from Des Moines to the Quad Cities (Tri-Cities, then)and drive up the river road.

      I still remember when you introduced me to Marcia Ball. I listened to a couple of her performances of “Louisiana 1927” and laughed when she added a swipe at “Heck of a job, Brownie” in one. She’s going to be in Austin at the end of May and there’s some discussion floating around about going up to see her. What’s not to like about a woman who can put on a show like this?


  13. Linda,
    It’s always surprising to people when a river leaves its banks. I guess we expect things to stay where they belong. The pictures and videos are always jarring: rooftops barely above water, street signs peeking out, trees showing only their top branches above water. It seems unnatural, but of course it isn’t. Trying to contain nature is what’s unnatural. No matter how many times nature demonstrates its power, we can never quite grasp the magnitude of it.

    I enjoyed the links. It was prophetic that Bessie Smith recorded Backwater Blues two months before the flood.

    1. Bella,

      That’s part of what is making this situation so interesting, in a macabre sort of way. The Mississippi in Louisiana has been forced to flow one way, while it wants to go another. There’s a nice, short and simple overview of the problem here.

      I’m just in the process of learning about all this. But I’ve learned enough to recognize that the good Mr. Twain was right: “One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver…that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame the lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it Go here or Go there, and make it obey; cannot save a shore that it has sentenced.”

      There are a lot of folks waiting to see what the river’s decided this time around.

      Glad you enjoyed the music!


  14. Linda, if you do nothing else, go no where else in 2011 you MUST go see Marcia Ball!

    It’s hard to believe she’s in her 60s now. Back in the late 70s and early 80s when I’d go see her at Tipitina’s and she’d do “Sea Cruise” when she’d get to the line “I get down on my bended knee” she’d grab the mike with one hand, get down on one knee and pound away at the keyboard with her other and the crowd would go WILD.

    I see they opened the Bonnet Carre spillway. I remember when they did that ’79 and ’83. Lake Pontchartrain was filled with huge trees for months afterwards. And I’m also thinking about that article by John McPhee you had way back about the Old River Control Structure. Lot’s of crossed fingers walking around up there this year.

    1. Richard,

      You of all people will appreciate this note from NOLA I came across the other day. There’s a suggestion for a new act down in the French Quarter – The Spillway Sisters, featuring Bonnie, Carrie and Morganza. ;-)

      We’ll see, re: Marcia. If she was going to be in Houston, there’d be no question. If it works out, you’ll hear all about it.

      Yep, the Bonnet Carre’s open and the Corps is cogitating on Morganza. They put out some variant inundation maps – yesterday, I think. Here’s a link to a recent flyover of the Morganza – just amazing footage. I hope they make the decision and announce it soon. People are getting antsy.


  15. As you’ve so vividly expressed in this post, the flooding river takes away everything but the music of those left behind. Racism, it seems, can do the same. Thank you for this reminder of nature’s cruel power, and the equally cruel power one group can use to control another — even decades after emancipation.

    1. bronxboy,

      I’m not sure I’d say the river takes away everything but the music of those left behind. I think I’d rather say the music endures as an expression of all those things the river couldn’t sweep away: resiliency, faith, determination, true community, a willingness to pick up and go on.

      It’s not always possible to prevail against the river, but even when the river – or racism – have done their worst, it is possible to prevail in a larger sense.

      As for the cruelty of nature – when we’re talking about the river it seems to me very much like the discussion about the hawk and his dinner. A feeding hawk isn’t cruel, and neither is the river. The river doesn’t say, “I’m gonna flow down there and GET New Orleans!” It simply flows, and follows its nature.

      After all, we’re the ones who made the decision to dam and divert its flow. If it choses to overrule that decision and set its own course – well, it’s going to be something to see. There are a powerful lot of variables that could affect the outcome.


  16. From the very beginning of your post, this line caught me immediately, “I worry less about making time and focus more on spending time – rather different pursuits, no matter where you’re traveling.” The older I get, the more I find this to be true. And we often apply it to the craft of teaching: “Education is a journey, not a race”. There’s so much to teach, and one might find something along the path which needs to be pursued even if it’s not in the state standards.

    I have two books I want to mention to you, which you may have read already. The first is Blue Highways by William Heat Least Moon. The second is one I just finished, which I’m certain is going to be in my list of top ten books ever read. Ever. It’s The Virginian by Owen Wister. I’ll post on it as soon as Blogger gets its act together. Which should certainly be by the end of the month. ;)

    And so, Linda, for all the things you’ve given me while we’ve been blogging together (from Advent calendars to wisdom to your most important friendship), please choose one of these so I can send it to you. If you’ve read them both, I have another in mind. Email me, friend, with your choice.

    p.s. I would send you a nicer edition of The Virginian than the one which appeared on the link. :)

    1. Bellezza,

      How kind you are! Any book you sent me would be treasured, but I will accept “The Virginian” with thanks. You know how I am with my reading – those three volumes for your Japanese Literature Challenge still are waiting, waiting – but I promise to read this one upon arrival!

      I do know “Blue Highways”. I’ve toted it around for years, reading and re-reading. And for the real travelers, there’s always “PrairyErth”, a voluminous exploration of Least Heat-Moon’s journey across Chase County, Kansas – mostly on foot. I have his latest, “The Road to Quoz”, but haven’t done more than dip in here and there.

      As you know, I have some views about standardized testing and “teaching to the test”. I thank God every day there are teachers like you out there, willing and capable of sneaking around the guidelines and actually nurturing curiosity – making education a journey.

      I’ve had this fantasy for some time, that just before you retire you’ll decorate a Christmas tree in your classroom with origami school administrators engaged in a variety of pursuits – let your imagination be your guide. ;-)

      Thank you again – I’m really touched.


  17. Brava on a marvelous post! I learned so much about the history of the river, the people, and the music.

    I loved being able to listen to such great music while reading your well-researched-well-written post e.g.
    Though I know his music I didn’t know how Muddy Waters got his name.

    1. dearrosie,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. If nothing else, writing posts like these increased my admiration for writers like John Barry and John McPhee immeasurably. When I look at my little blog entry here and think of the time involved just in research, let alone writing, I look at my copy of “Rising Tide” in awe.

      I also understand how you could just fall into writing a book. One thing leads to another, don’t you know? Unfortunately, one thing leading to another can include a sink full of dirty dishes and too many too-late nights. I need more discipline!

      Until quite recently I’d assumed the name Muddy Waters came from the River. That’s part of the fun – making discovery after discovery. Maybe we start to die when we think there’s nothing left to discover!


  18. Linda,

    I love it so much. While I grew up on the Arkansas side of the Mighty Mississippi I spent a lot of time on the Mississippi side because I had a lot of family there also.

    I have seen it go over some of the levees in my area. I have seen a lot of the “flood zone” go underwater on the Arkansas side around Memphis.
    Those farmers are tough. That land is planted in crops every year and if it floods the crops die and if it doesn’t the crops are harvested.. just a risk that land owner takes… This spring in Arkansas so many of the big rivers “backed up” because they could not empty into the Mississippi. That is why so much of Arkansas went underwater this year; even areas far from the Mississippi River.

    Your story also tells some of the sad parts of our history and our culture back in that time. We should revisit history often so we never repeat it as we go forward.

    And I love your thoughts on old Hwy 61. I traveled that road exclusively from Blytheville, AR to Memphis, TN growing up, until I55 was built. But still somestimes it was nice to take the old highway and all it’s beauty.

    Thank you for another wonderful story of past history reflecting on current events.


    1. Patti,

      Here’s a view of Arkansas for you. It’s sad, amazing and nearly unimaginable, all at the same time. I’m sure there are many people like me in the world, who knew there was farming in Arkansas but didn’t realize what a large agricultural state it is.

      Perhaps because my own work is weather-dependent, I grieve for the farmers in a different way than I do for the city dwellers. It’s easier for me to re-do things, but I know the feeling of seeing work ruined by events completely beyond my control, and it’s no fun.

      There was more music than the Delta blues along 61, and the back roads that connected to it. Hearing your enjoyment of your childhood trips, I couldn’t help thinking, “Patti’s an ‘Arkansas Traveler’!” I had opportunity to hear Bill Monroe in Houston decades ago – here’s his version. Enjoy!


  19. Attitude:
    My Father-in-law was Western Canada Exploration for I.O., now Exxon. He told me this story some years ago (when we had what I thought were “comfortable” conversations – that’s all over now).

    The engineers were looking at a test drill site and wondering how to deal with the melting ice roads and moving drill rigs. One of the Honchos was South African white. His solution: “Just give me 40 Blacks and I’ll do it myself!” (Inspired by your history of the levee defence system way back when.)

    1. Ken,

      It took me a while to figure out what about your story of the South African fellow seemed so familiar.

      I finally realized his statement has some parallels in folks’ views of a current event. I have an acquaintance who said – and believes – what’s been strongly implied in some quarters about the death of bin Laden. As she puts it, “Isn’t it wonderful that President Obama finally found and killed that terrorist?” Well, yes. Together with his version of “40 Blacks”. Ironies abound.

      I hear the same thing in other contexts. “Why don’t you get some Mexicans to do your sanding for you?” is a common question. There are several reasons, but none of them have to do with “Mexicans”. I wouldn’t have blacks, whites or kangaroos doing my sanding for me. I’ve tried it, but quickly learned that old, old lesson: sometimes it is easier to do it yourself.

      The more I think about this, the more I laugh, because I’m old enough to remember the days of The Men shoving back from the table and saying, “Let’s go have a smoke (play football, watch tv, solve the world’s problems) while The Women wash up.” Of course, The Men never were on horseback with guns. Stereotyping is one thing. What happened on the levees and in South Africa – and elsewhere – is something else.


  20. Good chuckle from the image of the “men” allowing that the “women” should be left in peace to clear up. I thought it quite normal – though I was just a “kid” – I was (and still am, I think) a male. When I got married to my latest (and still only) wife I imagined things would carry on just as they had from the early ‘fifties and before.
    It did not work out that way for me.

    Herself seemed fine at first but I guess I was just too tolerant. Pretty soon she had an education and a job which paid better and more reliably than my on- again-off again construction business.
    I stuck to my guns for some years and tried to instill some traditional values in my two daughters.
    Years after our youngest moved out she asked me:
    “What were you trying to do when you raised us?
    Because (she had her own growing girl child) I want to do the best I can.”
    Had to think for a bit but my response was:
    “You turned out the way you are in spite of my attempts to influence you.”
    (Both daughters are doing fine and the grandchildren are gentle (well, except for the boy) examples of the future described by author A.C. Clarke in “Childhood’s End”.)

  21. Great post. Out of all the talk about the tragedy of the 1927 flood, this is the first time I read that we stooped to involuntary servitude to fight the flood.

    Guess I’m kind of naive. It would never have occured to me that the “can-do” American spirit was lacking volunteers in those days.

    1. Nanette,

      I don’t think it’s naivete. I think it’s that it’s so hard for most of us to really grasp what slavery and the plantation system meant in the lives of real people. Of course I learned about slavery in school, but the focus in those years was civil rights: the end of Jim Crow, the ability to vote and so on.

      It wasn’t until I read “Rising Tide” that I began to get a sense of the complexity of the economic structures of the time, or the lengths to which some people would go to maintain them. When blacks were forced back to the levees at gunpoint, it wasn’t just the levees that were being shored up – it was a whole economic and social system.

      Live and learn, as they say.


  22. Nanette,

    I don’t think it’s naivete. I think it’s that it’s so hard for most of us to really grasp what slavery and the plantation system meant in the lives of real people. Of course I learned about slavery in school, but the focus in those years was civil rights: the end of Jim Crow, the ability to vote and so on.

    It wasn’t until I read “Rising Tide” that I began to get a sense of the complexity of the economic structures of the time, or the lengths to which some people would go to maintain them. When blacks were forced back to the levees at gunpoint, it wasn’t just the levees that were being shored up – it was a whole economic and social system.

    Live and learn, as they say.


    1. Andrew,

      One of the most interesting aspects of my work is the fact that I’m providing a 19th century service to 21st century people. Many of my customers live at top speed, thanks to laptops, iphones, ipads, satellite phones and so on. In the meantime, varnish dries when it dries. It can’t be hurried, it can’t be “made” to do anything.

      When a natural process comes up against the human desire for speed and control – well! As I said, it’s interesting.

      Hence the importance of the “reminders” the river gives us – “management” and “control” always will be relative terms here.


  23. of course i enjoyed every word of this post! as you now know, i grew up slightly upriver from scott, mississippi, where the levee broke.

    i was thinking of barry’s book today as i worked in the yard. i thought, ‘ i should pull that out and read it again.’ the municipality here has a victorian attitude about harnessing the river by shoving down mangroves and replacing them with huge boulders. some say that we have a stronger rainy season ahead… yes, i should read The Rising Tide again!

    thanks for taking me back to mississippi!

    now i’ll go to sleep!

    1. Z,

      As one of my friends say, levees work beautifully, until they don’t. One of these days, the Mississippi is going to say “pfffft” to the Corps of Engineers and everyone else involved in the cleverness that keeps the course from changing, and she’s going to do what she wants.

      I have a feeling your mangrove swamps work much as the marshes here do – that they’re protective as well as beautiful. Mechanical solutions just aren’t always better than nature’s!

      If you haven’t found it yet, another post you’d enjoy is Claude Monet ~ Alive and Well in Mississippi . It evolved from a trip to Doro Plantation – a beautiful place in the springtime!


      1. hey
        you are so right about the river, and i always watch that spillway south of natchez when the river’s above flood stage. long ago a mentor whose specialty/passion was construction of bridges, told me of his concern about that structure. (morganza? it’s been a dozen years since i was there, so it’s foggy!)… he predicted that one day ‘she’s gonna blow.’ and woe be unto anyone below there.

        yes, the mangroves serve their purpose and do a lovely job of subtle river management. i wish all engineers were required to read barry’s rising tide.

        i’m heading to claude monet now. you don’t by chance have anything about walter anderson? whenever i become mesmerized with the pelicans, i think of him and his love for the birds and his eccentric life. what a unique man he was!


        1. No, not a thing about Anderson, although I do know of him. After Katrina, when Ocean Springs was in the process of recovery, I read about him in an article focusing on the Mary O’Keefe Cultural Center.

          It sounds like quite a place – yet another destination to add to the list!

  24. he was a brilliant and tormented genius, and his family allowed him free rein to explore the wilderness.. he seemed torn between obligations (and love) to his family and his love for nature, especially the birds. he rowed to the barrier islands and lived like a savage and thrived on that life…

    oh my. i hear the distinct call of an osprey! logging of!


    1. PS – ja ja ja! i sound like a tormented artist who thrives on life with the birds!!!!

      the ospreys had flown away; i had just wondered about them yesterday! they are around in the rainy season when the water birds decorate the mangroves like baubles overloading a christmas tree!


      1. I understand the pull of the osprey completely. I wait for them every fall – they’re back now. Their call is unmistakable, and I always hear them before seeing them – when they first arrive, they’re so high they can’t be seen. They like to fish over the lake where I work – great fun to watch.

    1. John,

      One of these days I will go back, and will do more writing about this history and these places. It’s so rich – it’s barely possible to suggest just how rich in only a series of posts.

      I was so tickled to see your post about Clarksdale, and I’m glad you enjoyed this. It’s always fun to find a fellow enthusiast for something I love!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.