10 Songs About the Mississippi River

Updated on August 1, 2020
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Harry has been an online writer for many years. His articles examine New World history and its resulting traditions.

The Mississippi at Dusk

The Mississippi River drains a vast area
The Mississippi River drains a vast area | Source

A Few Facts About "Ol Man River"

The name, Mississippi, derives from one of the Native languages and translates roughly into English as the "father of all waters." Combined with the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, this continuous waterway has a huge watershed that extends all the way from Montana to Pennsylvania and as far north as Minnesota, where the actual headwaters of the Mississippi proper can be found. The distance from Lake Itasco in Minnesota to the mouth of the river in southern Louisiana is 2,340 miles, while the entire watershed is the third largest in the world.

Furthermore, it has been estimated that the Mississippi watershed occupies about one eight of the North American continent.

A Mississippi Steamboat Race

This late 19th century lithograph, depicts a Mississippi steamboat race between the Diana and the Eagle
This late 19th century lithograph, depicts a Mississippi steamboat race between the Diana and the Eagle | Source

Showboat Captures a Lost Era

The movie, called Showboat, was a big hit back in the 30s, but like many good stories, it was proceeded by a novel and a stage musical of the same name. The book was written by Edna Ferber in 1926 and then a year later, adapted to the stage by Ken Jerome and Oscar Hammerstein II. The original Broadway play, as well as the movie, were big hits as soon as they were released. The following clip of Paul Robeson singing, "Ol Man River", has become a Hollywood classic.

Ol Man River

A Massive Flood

The 1927 Flood destroyed much property
The 1927 Flood destroyed much property

Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927

Just by looking at some of the music that came out of the region, the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 must have been particularly bad. And indeed the facts surrounding this great flood are astounding.

First of all, the rains began falling in the summer of 1926 and did not completely cease until August of 1927. The worst part of the flood came in April 1927, when a whole series of levees from Illinois to Louisiana gave way. The flooded river was reportedly 80 miles wice at Vicks burg, Mississippi and overall, covered 16 million acres of land. In total, 640,000 people were displaced with the African-American communities, being hit particularly hard hit.

Rescue efforts were so bad, especially in the black communities, that there was a huge swing by black people at the voting polls from the anti-slavery party (Republican) to Democratic. The flood also spurred a mass migration from the flooded areas to the large, industrial cities of the North.

Some Old Blues Classics Get a Modern-day Remake

Following are two blues songs about the the Great 1927 Flood, which dished out severe damage along the lower parts of the Mississippi River.. Each tune was originally recorded by local blues musicians, who lived along the river, but in both instances, the songs did not gain much notoriety until they were covered by contemporary recording artists. The first song, High Water Everywhere, was originally written and performed by Mississippi Delta blues legend, Charlie Patton in 1929. Recently, the song has been covered by Bob Dylan, Rory Block and Joe Bonamassa.

On a similar note, the second song, When the Levee Breaks, was written by a singing couple, Kansas Joe McCoy and Minnie Memphis, but did not receive much airplay until Led Zeppelin covered the song in 1969. The song presented here was actually performed by an all-women, Led Zeppelin tribute band, named Zepparella.

Joe Bonamassa Performs High Water Everywhere at the Royal Albert Theater in London

When the Levee Breaks

Mississippi River Blues

By chance, back around 1930 two musicians (one white and one black) recorded very different tunes with the same title. First released in 1929, yodeling Jimmie Rodgers, also known as the singing brakeman, recorded his country version of Mississippi River Blues.

Then a few years later, in 1934, Big Bill Bronzy put out his Delta blues version of Mississippi Blues. Over the years, both songs have attained a great deal of popularity and are still covered by contemporary artists.

Jimmie Rodgers

Big Bill Bronzy

A Sixties Rock and Roll Classic

Though from California, the band, Credence Clearwater Revival, often captured Southern moods very well. Nowhere is this more evident than in their huge hit, Proud Mary, a song that features a ride on a Mississippi River steamboat. However, it was the musical of Ike and Tina Turner that truly defined this timeless classic.

Proud Mary

Riverboat Song (JJ Cale cover by Fandango)

Some Stories Just Don't Go Away

Evangeline was first memorized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in an epic poem, written back in 1847. Since then, the lengthy narrative poem has become an American classic, memorizing the name of Evangeline for centuries to come. Then some one hundred years later, The Band, recreated the sad story of the most famous Acadian exile in this popular ballad, first recorded in the late 60s.

Evangeline Revisited

Hit Songwriter Becomes A Mississippi River Pilot

Not only was John Hartford a successful musician and recording artist, but he also became a licensed Mississippi River Boat pilot. This momentous occasion for the St. Louis singer, songwriter, occurred in the years that followed his huge hit single, Gentle On My Mind.

In this interview recorded, while John was piloting The Twilight, he explains his love of the Mississippi River and steamboats. His philosophy is further expounded in the song titled, Miss Ferris, a tribute to his fourth grade teacher.

John Hartford River Boat Captain

Where Does an Old Time River Pilot Go

Bonus Track About a Time When Cotton Was King

The song, Catfish John, was written in 1972 by Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds. McDill put the historical tune on his Short Stories album. The single version became quite popular, giving McDill some much needed songwriting credentials. Since then, Catfish John, has been recorded by many, including Alison Kraus and the Nitty Griity Dirt Band, whose poetic rendition of the hard life of a slave, is featured here.

Down Around Vicksburg

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

  • Does the 'Deep River Blues' have something to do with the 1927 flood?

    Since the Deep River is the actual name of a river in North Carolina, I seriously doubt there is any connection between the two.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen


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