In the Chicago area in 2021, we should have received over 13″ of rain by the middle of May, but we have only gotten 5″ so far. This year, we wait. Other years, we have gotten more snow and rain than we thought possible. We have seen destructive storms and rain throughout the southern and eastern United States so far this year, and as we continue to deal with the effects of global climate change, we have slowly gotten use a new normal of ongoing disruptive and severe weather events everywhere.

This is nothing new. Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005. Superstorm Sandy pummeled New York in 2012. Hurricane Andrew toppled Florida in 1992.

As we collect ourselves and try to achieve some sense of normalcy after surviving these terrible weather events, we can’t help but to ask how things might have been different. We consider those who we lost, and wonder how we survived. We listen to the politicians who visit to review the destruction. We wonder what comes next.

In 1974, Randy Newman wrote “Louisiana, 1927” about the devastating floods throughout the south in 1927. Having moved to Louisiana as a young child, Randy Newman knew New Orleans well, and was familiar with the lingering effects that a weather event, like the flooding of 1927, can have on a city even 50 years later.

If you have ever been to the American south, you know. The air is thick and humid. The smell of saltwater lingers. Mossy trees are everywhere, laden with branches hanging low. The air feels lush, and somehow heavy. Listen to the orchestral strings that begin “Louisiana 1927.” It sounds like the air in Arkansas and Louisiana feels. The strings fade away after a few measures leaving only a piano playing quarter notes, with a gentle hi-hat cymbal tapping along. Randy Newman sings the song of the flood that changed everything.

“What had happened down there was the wind had changed
Clouds rolled in from the north and it started to rain
It rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline”

The effects of a storm might be immediate, but in 1927, the streets flooded only after several days of rain. 27,000 square miles of cities and towns throughout the south found themselves in water up to 30 feet deep. Newman sings about the St. Bernard and Plaquemine parishes in Louisiana, the areas he knew, the areas he was close to.

The song picks up slightly in momentum, and the strings come back in behind Randy Newman as the song continues, and as the story is told.

The river rose all day, the river rose all night
Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right
The river busted through clear down to Plaquemine
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The narrator sounds dejected and relegated, he sounds almost as if the flood is a foregone conclusion and that the water will rise. The water will come. People will die. The strings soar.

“Louisiana, Louisiana
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
Louisiana, Louisiana
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away”

Just as President Bush did in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the song tells how President Coolidge came to survey the destruction in 1927. Bush was in an airplane. Coolidge was on a train. Their responses were eerily similar, tone deaf and far removed from anything that could be thought of as helpful.

“President Coolidge come down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand
President say, “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”

Randy Newman sings of a south that feels left behind, a south that maybe feels like they have been forgotten by the rest of the country. “Louisiana 1927” is on the brilliant 1974 album Good Old Boys that tells a narrative of people in the south who feel like the rest of the country is laughing at them. That their way of life is disappearing. That nobody would care if they were to disappear tomorrow.

Even 30 years later, the great show Treme on HBO took a long, hard look at New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the song “Shame, Shame, Shame” as sung by actor Steve Zahn, pulls no punches in its indictment of President George W. Bush in mishandling the federal response to the storm. Bush only ever gazed down upon New Orleans as he flew overhead in Air Force One. People were sent out of town. Low income housing was shut down. Homes were left in disrepair.

As the raucous music blares behind him, Zahn tells the story of a city that has been left behind. A people forgotten about.

“Now we got the people of New Orleans living on Air Force bases
And in raggedy ass motels from Utah to Georgia
And people in Washington talking about keeping the housing projects closed
Yeah, that’s right
They don’t want no more poor people coming back to New Orleans
But I tell you why
New Orleans without poor people ain’t New Orleans
Because it’s the people without a pot to piss in
Who keep the beat and blow the horns and step in the streets”

As “Louisiana, 1927” closes, we hear a lament, an elegy, a question…what did we do wrong? What did we do to deserve this? Where do we go now?

“They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away
They’re tryin’ to wash us away”

“Louisiana, 1927”
Written by Randy Newman
Performed by Randy Newman
Released 1974

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