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The Joys of Art

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Louisiana 1927

Louisiana 1927
by Randy Newman

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain
Rained real hard for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day
The river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood
Some people got away all right
The river have busted busted through clear down to Plaquemines
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, "Little fat man, isn't it a shame what the river has done
To this poor cracker's land"

Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're tryin' to wash us away
They're tryin' to wash us away

"What has happen down heah is the wind have changed /
Cloud come down from the North an' it started to rain -

Length, breadth, importance in the life and history of mankind: combine these measures, and the Mississippi – Missouri system is unique, primus inter pares – and even in any one of these measures standing alone, it has few peers.

Its tributaries range from upstate New York to Alberta and Saskatchewan, from Georgia and North Carolina to New Mexico and Montana. Its hydrology is unique, and incomprehensible: Mississippi River fluid mechanics are a glimpse of chaos theory in its raw state.

It is the aorta of the continent. And what happens when an aorta fails?

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

Louisiana 1927 is one of the best and certainly one of the most moving songs ever to come from Randy Newman's pen; as sung by Asleep at the Wheel, carried by Ray Benson's darkling bass, it will cause the bones to move in your body, as when cannon and church bells sound. There is now a prose equivalent: John M. Barry's astounding Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.

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

The Crescent City, heart and head of the United States' only banana republic, home to Preservation Hall, the Marsalis family, oysters Bienville and Rockefeller, Pat O'Brien's hurricanes, Pete Fountain and Bourbon Street and la Place de St Louis and K-Paul's. Nawlins. Locus of mobsters and music, smuggling and snapper Pontchartrain, of jazz and juju. It nestles in a bowl surrounded by freeways, and above it is the Father of Waters, flowing oppressively by with the cargo of a continent on its back. Above the city. La Nouvelle Orleans is beneath the river's level; dykes and levees hold back the Mississippi as they do the waters of Lac Pontchartrain. Let those succumb at last, and the wrought-iron tracery of the dream city, the frozen fire of Andy Jackson and his restive steed, all will vanish like a dream, drowned forever. Drowned deeper than ever Prospero drowned his book, the magic broken and departed, the American Ariel borne down full fathom five, never again to wing an airy path of fantasy.

That is one end of the arc of danger. It curves from Baton Rouge - New Orleans across and through the Atchafalaya Swamp clear to Lake Charles. All of Acadia, all the Cajun parishes, the land of cypress knees, boudin, andouille sausage, and fais do-do dances of a night, is infiltrated by it. Houma and Morgan City, New Iberia and Lafayette, Crowley and Lake Arthur. At any moment, the whole outfall area could fail of its present structure. The water of the Atchafalaya, forced backward by the surging sea and laid flat by the planing winds, would undo the work of generations. For millennia, the outflow of the mid-continental watershed has swung back and forth like a pendulum. The Mississippi as we now know it, flowing around and above New Orleans, is manmade. For generations, Army engineers from St Louis to Plaquemines have worked to forestall the river's long overdue next swing to starboard, its urge to discharge again for a thousand years through its ancient channel, the Atchafalaya. This matching of will and resource against the Father of Waters goes back to the days when R. E. Lee was a young lieutenant of Engineers, upstream at St Louis. Man's will and it alone has kept New Orleans and Baton Rouge the ports they are today, in place of Thibodeaux or Morgan City. Yet some day, in geologic time, the mightiest works of man will fail and the river surge westwards yet again, free at last.

The River had busted clear through down to Plaquemines; /
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.

Against this backdrop of mortal danger – the potential that in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the Mississippi can shake off all the shackles of centuries of engineering, and roar and rampage across the land, devouring where it listeth – Barry has crafted a work that indeed deserved the Parkman.

President Coolidge come down in a railroad train /
With a little fat man with a notebook in his hand. /
President say, 'Hey, Little Fat Man, ain't it a shame, /
'What the River have done to this poor cracker land?'

The two constants of the attempt to manage and live beside and profit from the Mississippi are politics and engineering – and the two intersect in curious ways, especially within the Army Corps of Engineers. Barry, who has co-authored a highly regarded work on cancer research, has the knack of conveying technical concepts in lay language. As the author of The Ambition and the Power: A True Story of Washington, he is equally competent in the sinuous and slimy politics of the region through which the river snakes, and of the Federal government as well.

The 1927 Flood was the culmination of a century of graft, infighting, politicized engineering, and public works boondoggles. Barry begins with the great turf war between James B. Eads, one of Lincoln's point men in Missouri, a self-made tycoon who started as a river salvager, and A. A. Humphreys, one of the ghastliest Union generals (when his division was slaughtered, all that concerned him was the sublime figure he cut on horseback), but before the War the aspiring, and after it, the effective, dictator of the Corps of Engineers.

Barry proceeds to the days of wrath in 1927, in which not only the River was doing its worst. Even as the water rose to the rooftrees of houses, power struggles continued unabated. Barry does a triumphant job with the characters and consequences involved, heroes and villains alike, from the Percys, magnates of the Delta (yes, Walker's family), to Herbert Hoover, whom the Flood made presidential timber, to the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, who rode the ebbing waters to the governorship.

The dislocations of the 1927 Flood had consequences yet incalculable: not least the beginning of the most recent and most momentous of the mass migrations of African-Americans from the Delta to Detroit and Chicago. Barry has excelled in telling this story.

Louisiana! Louisiana…. /
They're tryin' to wash us away, they're tryin' to wash us away….

The Great Flood of 1927 is material for an epic; it has received the epic treatment at last, in a book worthy to be ranked with Prescott and Parkman, with Horgan's Great River and McCullough's work on the Johnstown Flood. This is solid, nuanced, thoroughly researched, and compellingly and brilliantly written. Unless and until John McPhee takes the subject on, and perhaps even then, this will remain the definitive work."


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