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Monday, September 5, 2005

Tryin' To Wash Us Away

Neumu Senior Editor Lee Templeton writes: This past week, as the images from Louisiana and Mississippi insistently pressed their way into my home — images of destruction, desperation, fear, and, yes, charity and hope — and demanded my attention, my reaction, I found myself turning to music to help make sense of the emotions that overwhelmed and threatened to undo me.

Surprisingly, the song I came back to over and over, that I keep coming back to, is Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927." I find no comfort in the song — there is nothing even remotely comforting about it — and yet, it seems to be the most important, the most necessary, song in the world at this tragic moment in time. Important and necessary because the questions it raises are the very same questions many of us are left with in the wake of Katrina's devastation, questions that we, as Americans, pretend don't even exist, questions that we claim have been answered long ago and no longer deserve our attention, questions that lurk hidden and neglected beneath our sense of the nation's commitment to equality and prosperity.

Released on Newman's 1974 album, Good Old Boys, "Louisiana 1927" takes as its central subject the devastating 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, told from the individual perspective of one who witnessed the events. The song opens with a swell of strings that embodies the mythological grandeur of the South — large white plantation houses nestled among the oak trees, hot summer afternoons spent on the porch, gentility and grace. It is, as Greil Marcus explains, an intro that would feel right at home in Walt Disney's Song of the South — a comparison rich with implications.

Emerging from the strings are Newman's piano and his gruff, bluesy drawl: "What has happened down here is the wind have changed/ Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain." (A testament to Newman's talent and attention to detail, beginning a song about a flood by talking about the wind.) Newman, singing in character, continues by describing the ensuing disaster: "River rose all day, the river rose all night/ Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right." Up to this point, the song is the simple documentation of a natural disaster. It is not until the chorus that the song takes on its weight: "Louisiana, Louisiana/ They're tryin' to wash us away/ They're tryin' to wash us away." Those lines are both chilling and mysterious. An entire state washed away. Indeed, an entire region — the South — and all it signifies. Couple this with the implication in these lines that this disaster, this widespread loss of life, land, and livelihood, was no accident, that it was a deliberate attempt to destroy, eradicate, erase, and an uneasiness begins to build. And who, exactly, is the "they" the singer refers to? Nature? Providence? God?

By way of an answer, the singer continues: "President Coolidge come down on a railroad train/ With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand." The hopeful among us might sigh with relief at these lines, expecting some help, some compassion, for those affected. Those of us familiar with the history of this disaster, or even those familiar with Newman, brace for something worse. "President say, 'Little fat man, isn't it a shame?/ What the river has done, to this poor cracker's land?'" There is no sympathy in the President's words, no compassion. Just distance and a palpable contempt embodied in the word "cracker." Coolidge and his administration — with the exception of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who parlayed the disaster into political gain — did as little as they could, perhaps even less than that, for those affected by the 1927 flood. Coolidge did not visit the area — Newman gives him a bit of a break in the song, allowing him to at least show up to voice his disdain — and refused to address the nation to ask for relief. "Louisiana, Louisiana/ They're tryin' to wash us away." Indeed.

Lying beneath the song's surface are the ugly facts of economic class and, by extension, race. The singer of Newman's song is a poor white farmer, an expendable person in the eyes of the government. Accounts of the 1927 flood are filled with stories of plantation owners asking rescue personnel not to evacuate black workers, for fear that if the workers left the delta they would never return, leaving the plantation owners without cheap labor. The food and relief affluent whites received in the wake of the flood was far superior to that given to blacks and poor whites.

Newman's song resonates in my mind as I watch the news footage coming out of the areas affected by Katrina. I see the faces of those survivors, left for days without food and water in New Orleans, and I register the fact that most of them are the faces of African-Americans, unable to evacuate because they had no car, no money, no place to go. I see these images and I grow angry at the delays in getting these people the help they need and deserve. President Bush and his administration have done a little better than President Coolidge did in 1927, but only a little. They have voiced their concern and their desire to help. But their reaction time has been criminally slow, and it suggests the contempt and indifference revealed in Newman's song. The majority of those affected by Katrina are the economically disenfranchised of every race. Before the storm, and in every other city in America, they were kept out of sight, neglected and forgotten. Now, they demand our attention.

I keep returning to "Louisiana 1927" for a number of reasons — because it reveals the reality of poverty in our country, and the depths of indifference with which it is greeted by every administration, but especially by the current one. I return to this song because it reminds me of my own complicity in this neglect and that I need to do everything I can to help. "Louisiana, Louisiana/ They're tryin' to wash us away." I would like to think this isn't the case. But I'm afraid that for those affected by Katrina, these words seem all too true.

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