In 1927 a horrible flood of the Mississippi, the product of almost Biblical sustained rainfall, drove over 700,000 people out of their homes in Louisiana. Newman commemorated the event as part of a song cycle of the South called Good Old Boys, which was released in 1974. I discovered it around 1980 or so, and it quickly became, and has remained, my favourite of all of his songs – and he’s written some incredible songs.
The tragedy is narrated in a dry, fatalistic fashion that only adds to the poignancy: Some people got lost in the flood. Some people got away all right. That’s just how luck breaks, you know? Its mournful refrain, “They’re tryin’ to wash us away”, evokes that very human intuition that a calamity of this size can’t just be the product of dumb luck, no, it must be part of some deliberate plan to wipe you off the face of the earth; this just has to be somebody’s doing, there just has to be someone to blame. And indeed, to a certain extent for some, yes, because some of the flooding was the result of dynamiting levees, in order to relieve the pressure and spare New Orleans, deliberately sacrificing smaller communities upstream. It didn’t help.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this song seemed almost prophetic. When George Bush flew over to observe the devastation from the comfort of Air Force One, you can bet the lines about the President’s visit in 1927 leapt to mind.*
This was, almost inevitably, the first song performed at the 2005 benefit concert for the victims of Katrina, and it’s since become a sort of anthem to memorialize that eerily similar fiasco. It was a powerful thing even before the levees broke and the Lower Ninth all but vanished underwater. These days, I’ve read, it brings crowds down there to tears.
I recently discovered this chorale, which gives more overt expression to the song’s underlying emotions:
*There are several reasons why the scorn heaped upon this Air Force One flyover was entirely misplaced, especially that the logistical and security imperatives of shuttling the U.S. President around on the surface would have amounted to a terrible distraction, and required an unconscionable waste of first responder resources. In hindsight, a helicopter would have been better.