With hurricanes Katrina and Sandy pounding our shores, Bill Morrison’s new film “The Great Flood” is quite timely, though many may be surprised to learn that it’s about an event that happened 86 years ago.
That would be the April 1927 flood of the Mississippi River, which inundated 27,000 square miles, displaced more than a million people and inspired, among other works, the heartbreaking Bessie Smith record “Backwater Blues.”
Seattle-based guitarist Bill Frisell has composed some exquisite quartet music for the film and will be playing it live at a screening at the Moore Theatre Saturday, accompanied by trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
Morrison and Frisell were inspired to make “The Great Flood” after reading John M. Barry’s extraordinary book “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.”
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“It’s just the most amazing story,” says Frisell, who has collaborated with Morrison before, but never on a project from the ground up. “It’s like reading an incredible novel that you can’t put down.”
As they worked on “The Great Flood,” the filmmaker and musician were appalled to discover how politics, money and race played into the story. When there was a choice, for example, about which side of the river to expose to controlled dynamiting of levees, poor black communities got the worst of it.
“They’d wipe out a whole community just so they could make some money,” says Frisell.
Two years ago, Frisell took a trip with Morrison up the river, starting in New Orleans.
“Coincidentally, the river was flooding again,” he says. “We flew into Memphis. Coming from the plane, it looked like you were over the ocean. (Later), we were standing on these levees looking at the water and the roofs of houses. They were doing the same thing again … Nothing has changed.”
If that sounds somber, it’s appropriate. “The Great Flood” is composed of archival black and white footage — some of it damaged around the edges, which gives parts of the film a flickering, through-a-glass-darkly quality — and organized into 12 segments, beginning with astounding shots from the air that convey the oceanic magnitude of the catastrophe.
There is no voice-over narration, just stark images showing muddy water tumbling through breached levees; heart-rending shots of people floating on top of cars; main streets flooded up to the neon “cafe” signs; cotton bales being loaded on river boats; and a mangy dog stranded on a corrugated metal roof floating with the current. The sheer volume of churning, muddy, roiling water is terrifying.
“There are some pretty rough things happening in the film,” says Frisell, whose quartet plays the music as they look at the film. “You see somebody fall off something, and they fall in the water — wait a second, that guy just died. It’s weird.”
When he first contemplated the piece, Frisell realized that the Mississippi River afforded an opportunity to highlight the whole narrative of American roots music — from delta blues and New Orleans ragtime to Chicago jazz and electric blues, not to mention “Showboat.” But while there are haunting references to “Ol’ Man River” and, naturally, the blues, the guitarist ultimately realized it was pointless to trot out all these genres, textbook-style.
“I didn’t try to mimic the styles,” he says. “My whole life has been impacted by that music. It’s all there, anyway.”
Indeed. Like the river itself, Frisell’s singularly American music for “The Great Flood” drinks from all those tributaries.
It’s a remarkable work.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org