Review: The Great Flood with Bill Frisell

Simon Adams is moved by a vivid documentary of one of America’s worst natural disasters, soundtracked by Bill Frisell and band

The Mississippi River is a natural force unto itself, none more powerful than when in flood. The aftermath of Katrina is still in our minds, but a far greater cataclysm occurred in 1927, the year of the Great Mississippi Flood.

It is the great flood and its aftermath that is the subject of filmmaker Bill’s Morrison’s latest documentary, with a soundtrack by guitarist Bill Frisell. Using original black and white footage that is often grainy, flickering and blotched, and with no spoken commentary, indeed no guidance to the images other than a succinct title introducing each section of the film, he details this disaster in all its horrors. The flood actually began in summer 1926, when heavy rains fell in the central Mississippi basin. Water levels rose throughout the year until in 1927 the river broke through its levees in 145 places and flooded 27,000 square miles in ten southern states. By May 1927 the river below Memphis, Tennessee had reached a width of 60 miles. To prevent the flooding of New Orleans, where 15 inches of rain had fallen in 18 hours, a levee was deliberately blown up with dynamite, flooding some parishes outside the city. In fact this destruction was unnecessary, as several other levees were overwhelmed by the river the next day, taking the pressure off the city. When the flood receded, the result was terrible: 246 people lost their lives and $400 million of damage was caused. Towns were washed away, the landscape changed utterly. 

Morrison’s success as director is to show the flood through contemporary images, often shot from boats floating eerily around the flooded rooftops of abandoned houses and farm buildings. Halfway through he produces a quick montage of advertisements from that season’s Sears Roebuck catalogue, a clever way to show that middle-class life continued as normal in parts of the United States while working people in other areas suffered terribly. Shots of bedraggled plantation workers and their families in the refugee camps hint at the controversy over how the area’s poor blacks were treated, especially as we have just seen only richer white folks getting into the evacuation barges. Morrison wisely leaves the wider politics of the flood to our consideration, although showing at the end of the film its impact in the great migration north of black families to start a new life in Chicago, an economic movement that also heralded a musical movement away from the rural blues to the harsher, electric blues and r’n’b of Chicago and the other northern cities. 

While this film has no vocal commentary, it does have a continuous musical score from Bill Frisell, with Ron Miles on trumpet, Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Frisell is for the most part discreet in his music, producing a sort of Ry Cooder-style Paris, Texas soundtrack of long-held plaintive notes and minor chords that echo across the water on screen. Occasionally, his anger gets the better of him, erupting in rage in a style very reminiscent to Miles Davis’s Jack Johnson soundtrack. The score fits very naturally around the painful images, but like all the best soundtracks, it supports the images rather than stealing the show.

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