The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in American history. In the spring of 1927, the river broke out of its earthen embankments in 145 places and inundated 27,000 square miles. Part of its legacy was the forced exodus of displaced sharecroppers, who left plantation life and migrated to Northern cities, adapting to an industrial society with its own set of challenges. Musically, the Great Migration fueled the evolution of acoustic blues (including artists who witnessed the flood such as Charley Patton “High Water Everywhere” and Memphis Minnie “When the Levee Breaks”) to electric blues bands that thrived in cities like Memphis, Detroit and Chicago becoming the wellspring for R&B and rock as well as developing jazz styles.
Frisell has drawn upon his wide musical palette informed by elements of American roots music, but refracted through his uniquely evocative approach that highlights essential qualities of his thematic focus. Frisell's past Americana works include his recent multimedia suite Disfarmer (commissioned by Wexner Center), Blues Dream for expanded ensemble, and Nashville. Frisell's collaborations involving film include prior works with Morrison (“The Film of Her” and “The Mesmerist”), with the cartoonists Gary Larson and Jim Woodring, and scores for Buster Keaton films. He has also contributed to a project inspired by the painter Gerhard Richter. For The Great Flood, Frisell performs on guitar with Tony Scherr on bass, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Ron Miles on trumpet.
In the spring of 2011, as the Mississippi River was again flooding to levels not seen since 1927, Frisell, Morrison, and the band traveled together from New Orleans, through Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Memphis, Davenport, Iowa, St. Louis and on up to Chicago.
Bill Morrison first met Bill Frisell while the filmmaker was working in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard in the early 1990s. “The Great Flood” is their third film project together and their first evening-length work. Much of Morrison's work on “The Great Flood” is based on actual footage of the 1927 flood, including source material from the Fox Movietone Newsfilm Library and the National Archives. All film documenting this catastrophe was shot on volatile nitrate stock, and what footage remains is pock marked and partially deteriorated. The degraded filmstock figures prominently in Morrison's aesthetic with distorted images suggesting different planes of reality in the story – those lived, dreamt, or remembered. In The Great Flood, the bubbles and washes of decaying footage is associated with the destructive force of rising water, the filmstock seeming to have been bathed in the same water as the images depicted on it. These layers of visual information, paired with Frisell's music, become contemporary again. We see the images through a prism of history, but one that dances with the sound of modern music.