Flooding along the Mississippi River is a danger that has always existed. Today, we have some protection against the forces of nature through improved levee and flood-wall systems.
But, in the early years of the 20th Century, such protection was minimal at best, and the yearly floods were a part of life on the Mississippi.
The most destructive flood in United States history occurred in 1927. It caused over $400 million in damage, killed 246 people, and left over 700,000 people homeless in seven states. By May of 1927, the river below Memphis reached an astonishing width of over 60 miles.
Many of those left homeless were re-settled in “relief camps,” which proved morally destructive, as the government, which was supposed to aid the victims, used survivors as forced labor to repair damaged levees.
The destruction caused by the flood and the distrust many felt towards the government led to an outpouring of cultural activity unparalleled in American history. Writers and song-writers immortalized the events and feelings of the period.
William Faulkner took notice of the effects of the flood and used it for the setting of his short story “Old Man;” however, it was song-writers who have been viewed as the true story tellers of the events of 1927.
Songs such as Lonnie Johnson's “Broken Levee Blues” and Memphis Minnie's “When the Levee Breaks,” a song reworked and re-recorded by Led Zeppelin, became a testament to the suffering of the 1927 victims.