The great Mississippi River flood of 1927 began when more than 100 levees broke early in the year. It resulted in more than 27,000 square miles of land being flooded, lasted for almost eight months, and is the most destructive flood in the history of the United States. More than $400 million in damages occurred, and at least 600,000 people were displaced. The subsequent exodus spread black culture and music away from the flood-ravaged South and into the country at large, a movement which reshaped America’s geographic, economic and cultural landscapes.
And yet, the flood is relatively undiscussed in the history books, and its impacts never reached the level of the public awareness of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, or the San Francisco earthquakes of 1906 or 1989.
But New York-based filmmaker Bill Morrison and Seattle jazz guitarist Bill Frisell are trying to change that with Morrison’s latest film, The Great Flood, which will screen at the Boulder Theater this Saturday with a live score from Frisell and his band.
The wordless documentary is something to behold. It unfolds as a series of vignettes that look at everything from the people who were impacted by the flood to the crushing footage of the flood itself and its aftermath, and makes for compelling viewing. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is incredibly apt here, as the images play across the screen with profound power and gravitas. Morrison was actually working on another film when he first came into contact with some of the footage that would eventually make it into Flood.
“I was involved in a project around 2005 called Shelter, and I was looking for aerials of flooded landscapes,” Morrison says. “There was some incredible footage. I came across a number of aerials of flooded landscapes from 1926 and 1927, and most of them were from the Mississippi River Valley.”
After this, the seeds of an idea began to form.
When Shelter premiered in late 2005, audiences were struck by the flood footage, especially in the wake of Katrina, and Morrison felt how transcendent a flood’s power is. And then he was introduced, roughly a year later, to a John Barry book called Rising Tide, which talks about the dramatic impact the flood had on American culture. At this point, Morrison decided to bring this event into the consciousness of 21st century America, in part because he was one of the few who could actually do so.
“The lion’s share of the footage comes from the Fox Movietone newsreel outtakes at the University of South Carolina, and I knew I could probably recreate as much newsreel footage to create a record of the flood as anyone else,” he says. “As far as I knew, no one had used those outtakes from 1927 that were in the Fox Movietone collection, so I knew where the bodies were buried, if you will.”
But it was not enough for Morrison to unearth these reels and string them together into a cohesive narrative. He wanted to make sure the music that would accompany the story would be fitting. And that is where Frisell comes in.
Frisell and Morrison have known each other for more than two decades and are fans of each other’s work, but had never been able to truly collaborate on a project before this one. (Morrison had been able to use existing music from Frisell’s catalog in a couple of his works, but that was all.) The Flood experience was unique for Frisell.
“The most amazing thing about this process, was how it evolved as we went along,” he says. “Most of the time there’s some music ready and then someone will do a film, or [vice versa], but it doesn’t happen that often — that I know of — where there’s a back-andforth thing going on.”
Morrison and Frisell engaged in the process of bringing this stirring film to life symbiotically. Morrison’s organization of the film impacted Frisell’s approach to the music at times, and some of Frisell’s compositions helped inform the way Morrison subsequently edited the film to create the finished product. But there is another intriguing layer to their relationship and to the relationship between the film and its music: combining live showings of the film with live performances from Frisell and the band.
“I’ve always been envious that musicians could invite an audience into a concert hall without the expectation that people were going to be told a story, and yet they were going to have a meaningful experience anyway,” Morrison says. “With a film, it’s the opposite. You’re supposed to be told something you didn’t know already, and you’re supposed to experience it intellectually, not temporally. I thought using a uniquely musical soundtrack would appeal to audiences coming to see Bill’s play, and would attract a certain type of musical audience that would be receptive to experiencing a story that’s being told in a more musical than lyrical way.”
The creative relationship Morrison and Frisell have is such that they want to find as many ways to bring the power of music and film together as possible, and are willing to do anything for the sake of making their art stronger. For example, Morrison traveled with Frisell and his band on a tour in early 2011 while the film and its score were still being worked on, and the experience had a marked effect on both of them.
“They played gigs in Memphis, Texas, New Orleans, Oxford, St. Louis, Iowa and Chicago,” Morrison says, “and the idea was to follow the path of the river and get a feel for what that landscape has to offer. It was a moving residency if you will.”
Touring the route of the diaspora was chilling because it allowed everyone involved to walk in the footsteps of those who lived through the tragedy. But there was an unexpected aspect of the trip that made it resonate even more deeply.
“What we were unable to anticipate was that the river would be at heights it had not been at since 1927,” Morrison explains, “so we all had that very unique experience of seeing a levee in Vicksburg and wondering whether it was going to hold the next day. It was an insidious, uneasy feeling.”
“I never really felt in danger,” Frisell adds, “but you got a real sense of how powerful this thing was, and is.”
And this is what Morrison and Frisell hope to convey through this magnetic film: the idea that this flood was so powerful that its ripple effect can still be felt even today.
“My hypothesis here is that the 1927 Mississippi River flood was part of the great migration and led to the spread of African-American music throughout the world,” says Morrison.
Which brings us back to Frisell. He is proof of how far African-American music has spread because, while the legendary guitarist is often associated with the jazz genre, his compositions span a wide range of genres, including rock and roll, Americana, country and blues. Ironically, it took a natural disaster for African-American music to come alive outside of the Southern United States, and Frisell is one of today’s most vivid examples of how that initial diaspora has continued throughout the country. But when it came time to make music for the film, Frisell didn’t want to recreate what the music of the time would have sounded like because it did not feel right to him.
“The flood caused all these people to migrate north to the cities, and — this is way oversimplifying it — the music changed from some guy sitting on his porch or in a field playing an acoustic guitar, to getting up to the city and being confronted by all the noise, the density, the electricity,” says Frisell. “It’s a reflection of how the music changed, how it turned into rock and roll. But I didn’t want to try to mimic that because there’s no way I could ever come close to the power of what Robert Johnson was playing, or Muddy Waters, or the people who were affected by all this.”
But this is not to say that people today cannot be moved by this event, even if they were not alive to experience it. When you watch the film and see the footage of despondent people trapped on rooftops or rowing boats down streets whose buildings are almost completely underwater, you feel for them. And despite how light and airy segments like the cheeky “Politicians” and the especially clever “The 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalog” look and sound, they paint a subversive portrait of the disconnect between the elite and poorer classes, which only augments the sense of loss that these people felt. This is a tragic event which has shaped countless millions of lives over the decades, and its weight is not lost on Morrison.
“Hurricane Sandy introduced 12 feet of water into my own home,” he says. “My life was upended, and to a certain degree our neighborhood is still putting things back together. So I guess I chose a topic that eventually became a reality in my life.”