There isn’t a word spoken in Bill Morrison’s compelling found-footage documentary, “The Great Flood,” yet it’s far from silent.
The 80-minute film, chronicling the calamitous Mississippi River flood of 1927 in stark black-and-white imagery, is scored by acclaimed roots and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.
Frisell and his band — with trumpet, guitar and drums — will perform live at a screening of the film today in Aspen. Premiered in 2011, Morrison’s film has been shown with Frisell’s live accompaniment in venues including Chicago Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York. The soundtrack to the final cut of the film, released in theaters in January, comes from a performance at the Moore Theatre in Seattle.
The flood itself profoundly changed America. It led to an acceleration of the “Great Migration” of African-Americans to the north, to the birth of Chicago blues and to the widespread damming of America’s rivers in the Flood Protection Act of 1928. The flood also spawned innumerable classic American songs, from Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” to Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere,” Lonnie Johnson’s “Broken Levee Blues” and more recent efforts like Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”
With the weight of those songs hanging over him for “The Great Flood,” Frisell opted to steer his score away from them.
“I didn’t want to just mimic that stuff or try to play it — it’s just too astounding what those people did in those original versions,” he said.
The legacy of those songs, he realized, is already in everything that he plays.
“Part of what the film is saying is that music is part of the fabric of what we are as a country, and it’s already in the fabric of what I play,” Frisell said. “So I just play what I know and try to find some emotional resonance with it.”
The only pre-existing song that makes its way directly into his composition is “Old Man River,” with phrases peppered judiciously in a few places in the piece, then played powerfully like a dirge at the film’s conclusion.
“Neither of us were interested in doing a Delta blues soundtrack, which would be more conventional for a documentary,” Morrison said. “But, of course, this isn’t a conventional documentary.”
The film opens with notes of brass and guitar over grainy images of a flooded countryside, with houses poking out of the water and animals huddled on the high ground. It’s broken into chapters that tell the story of the deluge. Chapters portray the sharecropping life that preceded the flood, the swollen tributaries to the Mississippi and the dynamiting of levees in Poydras, Louisiana. Flood footage collected from newsreels of the era show the water at its worst.
The music takes some ironic turns, like the breezy jazz-guitar riff over images of white men in suits dynamiting levees to flood black neighborhoods.
A chapter on evacuation shows military men loading people onto boats, men on horseback driving cattle through the floodwaters and a tent city not unlike the ones that sprang up in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina less than a decade ago. “Politicians” shows then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and others taking boat rides through the devastation. A section titled “Aftermath” shows mud caking in the streets, houses slantwise, men moving piles of dirt, debris and detritus (not unlike the scenes two years ago in New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy) with a subtle horn and atmospheric guitar playing in the background.
The final chapters, “Migration” and “Watershed,” chronicle the move from the Delta north to Chicago, where we see groups of African-Americans dancing and playing the blues.
There are touches of humor — a kid mugging for the camera amid the devastation, a woman picking a flower as she makes her way off of an evacuation boat. One inspired section, backed by Thelonius Monk-style bebop, with drum roll flourishes, is an animated tour through the 1927 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, which had a circulation of 70 million that year.
“People say there were two books in every home — the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalog,” Morrison said.
The catalog offers a look at American materialism and consumerism in the ’20s, how people were living and also what was being lost.
“It’s 1927, it’s the height of the ‘Roaring ’20s,’ when we were pretty fat as a nation,” Morrison said. “That’s all the crap people wanted, and it’s all the stuff that got wet.”
Like Morrison’s past found-footage films, the decay of the film itself plays a purposeful role in “The Great Flood.” The damaged spots on the celluloid speak to formal elements of the film, often interacting with percussive elements in Frisell’s score.
“It was shot back then and it survived in a way that no digital file could have,” Morrison said. “And, like the river, it’s a long thing, and what you’re seeing is water washing up on its sides, so formally it made sense.”
Morrison previously had done two short films with pre-recorded music from Frisell. He was searching for a project on which they could truly collaborate, when he began discussing John Barry’s 1997 book about the flood, “Rising Tide,” with friends in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The book focuses largely on the demographic shift the ’27 flood inspired, its impact on American society and the birth of urban blues.
“I thought, ‘This is my music hook,’” Morrison said.
The creative process worked differently from the standard scoring of a film, where a musician puts music to a finished product. Frisell and Morrison worked together from the start. The pair had met some two decades ago when Morrison was working as a dishwasher at the Village Vanguard and Frisell was playing the vaunted Greenwich Village jazz club.
As Morrison began collecting footage of the ’27 flood, he and Frisell traveled to the Mississippi Delta together in 2010 — driving along the river between Memphis and New Orleans, where Frisell began crafting melodies that told the story of the land.
“The amazing thing was that the river was actually flooding,” Frisell said. “We were flying into Memphis and it looked like the Atlantic Ocean or something. … That trip — that was when all the themes and melodies sort of came together.”
No two live performances have been the same since then, Frisell said.
“The idea is that the music evolves and changes every time we play,” he said. “We have done it quite a bit live, and there’s plenty of room for all kinds of things to happen. It never feels finished to me. I hope it’s something we can keep doing.”
Each time he sees it, Frisell said, he sees something new and plays off of it a little bit differently.
Frisell and his band do play with sheet music, but also with video monitors of the film. The more they’ve performed “The Great Flood,” he said, and the more familiar they’ve become with the score, they look less at the music and respond more to the film, freeing them to improvise.
“Having the music in front of us is one added barrier to immersing ourselves totally in the emotion of the film,” he said.
The setting and the audience also has had an effect on them. A performance in Chicago, Frisell said, was particularly moving.
“There was some stir of emotion I was feeling from the audience that was really powerful, for all I know they were actually relatives of people in the film,” he said.
Without talking heads or any narration or much text on the screen, the film gains a gravitas from Morrison’s curated footage and Frisell’s music.
“I’m just going off the premise that a picture paints a thousand words,” Morrison said. “You can see the racial disparity. I don’t need to tell you about it. It also puts the viewer in a different relationship with these images, not to be told what they mean. You draw your own conclusions and it’s perhaps more powerful.”