Photo Gallery: Voices From the Flood

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What was it like for the residents of the Mississippi Delta in spring 1927, as torrential rains fell and the river rose steadily to flood stage? After the levees broke, what did people do to survive? How did the flood affect the Delta's population, ultimately?

One window into life during and after the flood is Delta blues music, which was blossoming in Mississippi at the time of the disaster. Blues artists from Bessie Smith to Barbecue Bob recorded over 30 songs related to the Great Flood of 1927. Though many blues performers did not personally experience the flood, they understood the hardships the Delta's predominantly African American sharecropper population faced.

After the flood, the Delta would never be the same. With their meager crops destroyed, and feeling deeply mistrustful of white Delta landlords after their poor treatment as refugees, thousands of African Americans left the area. Many headed north to seek their fortunes in Chicago. The blues migrated too, and Chicago became a center for African American music.

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"They just herded them up and drove them to the levee. Right down Nelson Street, that was the Negro drag at the time and they just got them off the streets and just carried them right down to the levee, started them to work." -- Maurice Sisson, Greenville Resident

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They want me to work on the levee, I have to leave my home. They want me to work on the levee, I have to leave my home. I was so scared the levee might break and I may drown.  -- Lonnie Johnson, lyrics from Broken Levee Blues

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I woke up this morning, couldn't even get out of my door. I woke up this morning, couldn't even get out of my door. The levee broke and this town is overflowed. -- Alice Pearson, Greenville Levee Blues

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"There were not tents to start with. it was just a few blankets to start with. You can see them stretching across a little frame to try to make it a tent-like place to stay out of the weather, which was really bad. It was April. It was rainy. It was cold. These people had been out in rescue boats. It was miserable." -- John Barry, Historian

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"You stayed on the levee unless you got a pass to be able to go into town. You had to have a tag on you. Your chest was full of tags. You don't go nowhere unless you got permission to go. You had to have a tag on you. And it was just... it was really slavery." -- David Cober, Greenville Resident

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It was cold and raining, some people didn't have no shoes on their feet. It was cold and raining, some people didn't have no shoes on their feet. Women and children's cryin, because they didn't have a thing to eat. -- Casey Bill Weldon, Lyrics from Flood Water Blues

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"We found numerous instances where the colored people, as a result of years of living under a semi-peonage system, in many communities were afraid to ask for the things to which they were entitled under the Red Cross. In every community we visited we found some colored people of this type and many times their fear caused them a great deal of suffering." -- Colored Advisory Commission report

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Once a rosy lawn, but now a muddy pond. Floods in fields of cotton and sugar cane... I'm so weary, heavily down and blue, with no one to tell my troubles to. I'm just a wondering, homeless, lonesome refugee. -- Laura Smith, Lyrics from Lonesome Refugee

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"When we listen to blues music of the 1920s, it's like looking through a window at the experience people are having at the time." -- Mai Cramer, Radio Host

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"Singin' the blues? Everybody that learn how to sing from three years old up couldn't sing nothin' but the blues 'cause they lived in it." -- Mildred Commodore, Greenville Resident

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"The Delta itself has throughout blues history been a stronghold of blues music. It was very intensely developed there, stylistically and creatively." -- David Evans, Professor

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"So many people wanted to leave here and go to Chicago. In Greenville the train was at ground level, and they were pushing to get on the train. I surely wanted to go to Chicago. Everybody was going but me. They just knew they were going to the promised land." -- Maurice Sisson, Greenville Resident

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