Broken Levee Blues
Tags: Lonnie Johnson
“I want to go back to Helena, but the high water’s got me barred.
Said, I woke up this morning with the water all in my back yard.
The water’s all up ’round my windows, backin’ up in my door.
I’ve got to leave my home. Said, I can’t stay here no more.
They want me to work on the levee, they’re coming to take me down.
I’m scared the levee may break, ah…and I might drown.
The police run me out from Cairo, all through Arkansas.
And they threw me in jail, behind these cold iron bars.
They said, “Work fight or go to jail”, I said, “I ain’t totin’ no sacks.”
I won’t drown on that levee and you ain’t gonna break my back.
Lonnie Johnson was a master of Dropped-D tuning [low pitch to high: D-A-D-G-B-E]. If you haven’t ever heard his acoustic jazz duets with Eddie Lang, go out and buy them right now. You won’t be sorry.
As a side note, it appears that Robert Johnson leaned extremely heavily on the accompaniment for this tune in devising his guitar part for “Drunken Hearted Man,” which also features a vocal style that also seems to mimic Lonnie Johnson. They appear, at least, to be musical kin, but were not blood kin—although Johnson was reported to have billed himself as one of those “Johnson boys”–a reference to Lonnie and Tommy Johnson.
This track was recorded with the L’Arrivee.
Every Mississippi bluesman who lived through it has a tune about the catastrophic 1927 flood of the Mississippi.
This one, by the great Lonnie Johnson, is about the press gangs of blacks who were rounded up at gun point and forced to the dangerous work of reinforcing the levees, many of which eventually gave way. The first levee on the southern Mississippi to fail was the Mounds Landing levee just north of Greenville, MS. Starting as a small sand boil on the far side of the levee, within minutes, there was a wall of water eleven stories tall and three-quarters of a mile wide crashing across the desperately flat Mississippi Delta. The water came up so fast that people had to cut holes in their roofs to get out of their houses. Recorded in 1928, this is one of the few recorded tunes in the blues that touches on a topic that was racially charged. A wonderful book on this part of our history is Rising Tide: The 1927 Flood and How it Changed America by John Barry. You’ll find out how Calvin Coolidge managed the portrayal of his dealing with this disaster and parlayed it into a presidency.
You might also listen to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” which I very nearly included on this recording.
The water was up in Greenville, up to the second floor balconies, for months.