It’s raining in upstate New York, supposed to continue for days. Rivers and lakes remain high, but flooding is over. This corner of the world is a safe haven compared to the Louisiana river corridor. Up and down the Mississippi people are rounding up their animals, leaving, and watching their houses float away. It has happened many times. The story of most famous flood, The Great Flood, April 21, 1927, is being retold again and again. Saturday on NPR’s Weekend Edition Scott Simon interviewed area residents and ended with Lonnie Johnson playing his guitar and singing “Broken Levee Blues.” Johnson wrote the song soon after the flood and recorded it in 1928.
Lonnie Johnson, I know the name, but he’s one of those holes in my jazz bucket. “Broken Levee Blues” stuck in my head, so I wandered around looking and listening hither and yon.
I often wonder where Armstrong was at this or that moment in history, how involved he was mentally if not physically, what the news meant to him. As time passed did he look back, picture himself where he had been at the time a disaster swept by or a great political change occurred? When I think about 1957, Faubus and Little Rock, I see Armstrong in North Dakota speaking his mind to a news reporter. Ten years later was North Dakota a part of his memory when he thought about his part in the civil rights movement, his quick, honest response that placed him in a different spotlight?
In 1927 Armstrong was in Chicago, a big year for him. He was busy, busy cutting records with The Hot 5. In April and May alone they recorded nine times. Now far away from New Orleans, what impact did the Great Flood have had on him? His early life in New Orleans, his family remaining there, all this must have been with him in Chicago when the water was rising then spilling over the levees. Perhaps I could find an Armstrong link to Lonnie Johnson and his “Broken Levee Blues.”
Did Armstrong ever record the song? No. Did Lonnie Johnson ever play with Louis Armstrong? Did they ever record together? Yes indeed, Lonnie Johnson joined the Hot 5 (Armstrong, tp; Kidd Ory, tb; Johnny Dodds, d; Lil Hardin, p; and Johnny St.Cyr, banjo/guitar) to record “I’m Not Rough” on December 10, 1927. I had not heard this song or heard of it, but it was easy to find once I knew where to look. I found it on Columbia Jazz Masterpieces The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Volume III. Also on that release is Johnson playing guitar on “Hotter Than That” and “Savoy Blues,” recorded December 12, 1927.
The first CD I purchased was West End Blues. I have listened to “Hotter Than That” many, many times. But Lonnie Johnson does not play guitar on this recording. The jazz people love to talk about the Lonnie Johnson “Hotter Than That” version with Armstrong and the Hot 5. [The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong] I needed that recording. I was saved from a purchase right before I hit BUY when I remembered to consult Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux’s Jazz. Turns out I did have the Lonnie Johnson version with the Hot 5; it is on the first CD of the four CD set that accompanies the book. Not only can I listen but also be guided through their structural analysis.
Blues and the Great Flood go together. “Broken Levee Blues” is one of several blues songs about The Great Flood. Another is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues” recorded in May 1927. Another is Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” often tied to the Great Flood. Endless hours of picking through online sources has its high moments. In this case, I found a link to a webpage that states Smith wrote it about a different flood. She recorded this song two months before the flood. [Cambridge Journals]
Armstrong did not record “Back Water Blues.” However, Armstrong did accompany Smith on nine songs they recorded together, six of them with Blues in the title. He often mentioned his respect for Smith. “She’d always have the words and tune in her head, and we’d just run it down once. Then she’d sing a few lines, and I’d play something to fill it in, and some nice beautiful notes behind her. Everything I did with her I like.” (Gary Giddins, Satchmo, Da Capo, 56)
I moved along, still looking for a watery blues number that Armstrong had a hand in. In the discography, checking 1927 recordings date by date, I found Sippie Wallace. Another hole in the jazz bucket. Wallace may not be as famous as Lonnie Johnson, but she was well known and had a large following. Like Johnson, Wallace made it big and then disappeared for a long time, later resurfacing for a second career. Bonnie Raitt played a role in finding Wallace a new audience. Raitt recorded Wallace’s songs “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Woman Be Wise” on her first album, 1971. During the 1970s Wallace sometimes toured with Raitt.
But hotter than that, Sippie Wallace recorded “The Flood Blues” with Louis Armstrong on trumpet on May 6, 1927. The waters were still roiling. This may be the closest Armstrong came to commenting on the Great Flood of 1927.
Sippie Wallace and Louis Armstrong—"The Flood Blues"