Human civilization can trace its roots back to the transformation of muddy waters into new land.
This transformation arises from the swirling mixture of floodwaters and silt, of rivers depositing sediment on to floodplains and deltas to form new land. This flood-deposited sediment has long served as the soil from which complex cultures and societies emerged. Most of the first civilizations arose from the silt left behind by floods on the deltas and floodplains of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, Amazon and Mississippi rivers.
The river-deposited silt was rich in nutrients and its fertility allowed early agriculture to thrive. Thus, our cultures and civilization have long been sustained by the dynamic tension between erosion and deposition, between river and land, between flooding and fertility.
This introduction seems to point toward the fourth installment in my series on rivers and food. However, I’m about go see blues legend Buddy Guy, so let me pause from writing about deltas’ food and instead talk about Delta Blues.
And about how, in addition to being crucial to early civilizations, the processes of flooding and deposition also led to rock and roll.
This story starts in the Mississippi Delta, a landscape created by floods. Each flood left behind a layer of black mud, with the layers building over time into deep, fertile soil and some of the most productive agricultural land in the world. In the 19th century, an agricultural society grew up on the beneficence of that rich soil and the barbarity of slavery.
Although a millennia of floods underpinned the Delta’s long-term productivity, in the short term, stable cotton harvests hinged on keeping the floods at bay. Levees separated the Mississippi and its floods from the flat, rich farmlands of its floodplains: the product of floods past disconnected from the disruption of floods today.
But in 1927, the society that had grown up on the largesse of floods felt their wrath. That flood on the Mississippi remains to this day the most damaging river flood in United States history ($17 billion in today’s dollars). Hundreds of levees failed and an area the size of South Carolina was inundated for months, displacing 600,000 people from their homes.
Despite that massive area of inundation and the scale of property damage, the official death toll was relatively small: reported to be under 500 people.
But historians believe that number reflects a dramatic undercount. Most likely, thousands of people were drowned and swept beyond recovery or the attention of official statistics.
Who were the people swept away from their land and from society’s accounts of the flood? The Black families that worked the Delta soil as sharecroppers.
Further, the flood re-exposed the deep racial fissures that the Delta society had worked hard to either smooth over or wish away. For example, Black people were forced to work in near slavery-like conditions to shore up the levees as floodwaters rose.
By 1927, the Great Migration of Black people moving from the rural South to industrial cities in the North was already underway. But the 1927 flood became a major accelerant of that migration, particularly for the movement of people from the Delta.
After the flood, 200,000 Black people were homeless and the Delta region was economically devastated. In the wake of the ugliness and disruption, a river of rural Black people began flowing north.
They brought their art and culture with them, including the Delta Blues.
The Delta Blues, with its distinctive shuffling beat and slide guitar, had long chronicled the inequities and challenges of life in the region for Black people.
The Delta Blues also chronicled the flood and its aftermath. Consider “When the Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Over a traditional blues riff on an acoustic guitar, McCoy describes the forced levee repair: “I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away.” With the final line he alludes to the great migration moving northward, “I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.”
Decades later, Led Zeppelin recorded a cover of that song and provided greater geographic specificity to that final line. In so doing, they reveal the city where the Delta Blues were transformed, the setting for the alchemy that gave their version such heft: over the wailing harmonica, Robert Plant sings “going, going to Chicago.”
Chicago was a primary destination for many of the people leaving the Delta. By 1930, 120,000 new arrivals had doubled the city’s Black population.
In Chicago, the Delta Blues got plugged into amplifiers and evolved into the electrified Chicago Blues. In a PBS documentary about the blues, guitarist Gary Clark Jr. summarized the transformation: “A lot of these cats migrated from the south and it was more of an acoustic sound and they got to the city and needed to be heard. People started becoming electrified. That right there changed the course of music to this day.”
Chess Records distributed the music of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker to the rest of the country and beyond. Each of those musicians was part of the Great Migration: born in the Mississippi Delta, or nearby, in the decade before 1927, and then moved to Chicago or other northern cities in the thirties or forties.
As the Delta Blues begat the Chicago Blues, the Chicago Blues begat rock and roll.
As teenagers, Keith Richards bumped into Mick Jagger at the Dartford Station, waiting for a train to London. Tucked under Jagger’s arm was the record The Best of Muddy Waters. They bonded over that record and others from Chess and they adopted the title of Waters’ song Rollin’ Stone for the name of the band they went on to form.
To be fair, rock and roll, like the Mississippi, is a seriously big river, one with many tributaries that converged to form its still-shifting channel. And the Great Migration had many drivers beyond the Mississippi flood. But that flood was a particularly powerful catalyst for the diaspora from the Mississippi Delta, and the Delta Blues—channeled through the Chicago Blues—may be rock and roll’s essential tributary, with a gritty, longing, shuffling beat still pulsing unmistakably within the bigger river.
Buddy Guy is a key figure in the evolution of the Chicago Blues to rock and roll. Now that Waters, Wolf and Hooker are all gone, Guy embodies the Chicago Blues as much as any current figure, but he also was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eric Clapton called him “the best guitar player alive.”
Guy is also one of the last living connections to the legends responsible for the first step in that evolution, from the Delta Blues to the Chicago Blues. Though he was born after the 1927 flood, Guy took the same journey as Waters, Wolf, and Hooker, leaving the rural south—he grew up in Lettsworth, Louisiana, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi—for Chicago. They were his heroes and he played alongside and recorded with all of them.
On Saturday night I’ll see Guy on his farewell tour, playing in an outdoor theater along the Cuyahoga River. Though I spend most of my time thinking about how rivers and floods make habitat for fish, when Guy starts in with Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, I’ll think about how a river flood made rock and roll.
(A postscript for any geomorphologists reading this: the Mississippi Delta is not actually a delta, but is a floodplain where the Yazoo River flows in to the Mississippi. It is located a few hundred miles upstream from the Mississippi’s true delta where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. But, like a true delta, the Mississippi Delta is a landform created by rivers depositing sediment over time).