At noon on September 29, 1927, the clouds over St. Louis began to take on an ominous darkness. In the distant western sky, sharp lightening appeared and low, deep rumbles of thunder sounded. By one o’clock heavy rain commenced, accompanied by increasingly forceful wind. Within minutes the cell touched down, forming a large and devastating tornado, which was attended by a dull, drumming sound and a swirl of black dust that engulfed the city. Along the cyclone’s nearly six-square-mile path, up from the southwest quadrant to the northeast of the city and then across the Mississippi River into Venice, Illinois, it took the lives of at least sixty-nine people and created millions of dollars in damages, including the destruction of approximately 5,000 homes.1
To date, the infamous St. Louis Cyclone was one of region’s most destructive weather episodes. It was particularly damaging for the Black communities of St. Louis who reported roughly fifty casualties, more than one hundred injuries, and the total destruction of some of its premier Westside enclaves.2 As one Black journalist lamented, areas that were “once showplaces of the Race,” boasting the region’s most “pretentious” Black owned homes, were in the aftermath reduced to “piles of brick, mortar and stone.”3 Despite the disproportionate number of Black victims of the tornado, however, mainstream white newspapers outside the region, including the New York Times, emphasized the loss of white life, the destruction of white-owned property, and efforts to avoid “disorder,” including the deployment of troops to “shoot looters on sight.”4
Along with journalists at the Chicago Defender, the Philadelphia Tribune, and the Baltimore Afro-American, Blues performers stepped in to fill the gap in public acknowledgement. Blues performers recovered the event’s unfolding destruction from the vantage of Black working-class witnesses and victims. Translating the details of the sudden and destructive weather event into the vernacular idiom of the genre, they restructured its meaning from the vantage of a collective defined not by property ownership but rather from a shared analysis originating in overlapping social and ecological vulnerability.
Lonnie Johnson, who recorded “St. Louis Cyclone Blues” in New York City a few months after the storm, vividly captured the terror it induced from the vantage of not a middle-class homeowner but rather a working-class witness, inhabiting America’s social and ecological margins.5 Johnson recounted the wind’s uncanny sound as a “noise like [he] never heard before” followed by the clamor accompanying the terror as the poor people who lost everything set about “screamin’, and runnin’ every which away.” Although Johnson’s narrator escapes the total loss his neighbors experience — his “shack” withstanding the wind, despite its trembling and buckling — his brush with destruction highlights his vulnerability as part of a collective defined through its common housing woes.6 Similarly, Luella Miller’s 1927 “Tornado Groan,” reworks the details of the St. Louis cyclone’s destruction to meet the genre-specific demands of the Blues. Miller recounts the storm from the vantage of one of its direct victims, however. “Tornado Groan” emphasizes displacement, loneliness, and a loss of romantic love. Miller ascribes to the tornado anthropomorphic characteristics, figuring it as “the other woman,” who not only sweeps her home away, but who also leaves and then returns to take her man away.7 As a common trope within the era of the First Great Migration’s demographic upheavals, Blues renditions of lost love served as a generic narrative vehicle whereby performers conveyed the trauma uprooting through regional displacement and mass urbanization, as well as the enduring ecological susceptibility across geographic locations born of their racialized outsider position. Miller, left without her home, her bed, or her lover, wanders in the street. She is “lonesome,” and thus an alienated subject defined by a permanent sense of loss and un-recoverability. She faces the exclusion and vulnerability accompanying a rootless single Black woman in Jim Crow America.
Narrating Black life and death in relation to the storm, Johnson’s and Miller’s respective recordings present the phenomenological perspectives of working-class Black witnesses and victims of the storm, drawing on and extending what late geographer Clyde Woods describes as the Blues epistemology. Originating in the vernacular tradition of enslaved and post-emancipation Black communities in the Mississippi Delta, the Blues were a communal formation created in the violent aftermath of Reconstruction when explicit political discourses were banished from public life by white supremacist terror. The Blues spread throughout the states of the former Confederacy and into emerging northern Black communities by the 1910s and 1920s following the dispersal of the Delta’s Black communities and their musical traditions.
The Blues contain under-examined intellectual resources in relation to the matters of environmental destruction and environmental justice. Blues description and analysis, remixed and remade in the changing environmental and temporal contexts shaping Black thought, was a primary retainer and progenitor of critical and sometimes heterodox information about Black life in its imbrication with environmental vulnerability and possibility. Taken as part of a larger Blues archive, Miller’s and Johnson’s songs document catastrophe as one among a number of environmental events reshaping the spatial and regional dynamics of Black life and culture. In the same year, the Great Flood devastated Black communities along the lower portions of the Mississippi River, spawning its own archive of Blues performances.
Historically and into our contemporary era, working-class Black communities have had to face the brunt of environmental vulnerability as the disproportionate inhabitants of poorly constructed and poorly maintained, often absentee-owned housing in riparian flood plains, coastal bottoms, tornado prone sectors, closest to toxic environmental hazards. While Black communities, especially Black working-class communities, are not often acknowledged as primary progenitors of generative or meaningful environmental thought or consciousness, these recordings evidence the alternative vantages on ecological and environmental transformation produced within the Blues as a form of Black working-class popular intellectualism. Blues recordings, taken alongside Black material culture as well as more traditional archives, represent an untapped and underused archive of not only catastrophic weather and climatic events, but of distinctive intellectual resources from the vantage of the historically dispossessed. These resources are critical for thinking through and re-contouring our emerging post-oil landscape. In an earlier era of plagues, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes, these songs drew on the substrate of the Blues epistemology and analysis of the unique conditioning of Black ecologies, which as Justin Hosbey and I describe, are “on the one hand a way of historicizing and analyzing the ongoing reality that Black communities in … the African Diaspora are most susceptible to the effects of climate change including rising sea levels, subsidence, sinking land, as well as the ongoing effects of toxic stewardship” and at the same time, the naming of a “corpus of insurgent knowledge produced by these same communities which we hold to have bearing on how we should historicize the current crisis and therefore also how we conceive of futures outside of destruction.”
Miller in particular evidences this second function of Black ecologies as insurgent modes of interpreting environmental vulnerability and catastrophe. In “Tornado Groan” the sudden appearance of the storm, given human agency, leads to displacement that cannot be undone. Heard alongside Bessie Smith’s famous 1927 “Backwater Blues,” which chronicles the flooding of the Cumberland River in Tennessee from the vantage of someone who is displaced and who cannot return, it is clear that within the larger body of Blues work, environmental displacement engenders a permanent sense of rupture with home, community, and place concomitant with other forms of geographic dislocation. Miller and Johnson, as well as a number of other Blues performers chronicling catastrophe, highlighted Black working-class susceptibility to environmental hazards and linked the diasporas they set off on a continuum with other forms of violence driving the period’s demographic revolution, including economic domination, political disenfranchisement, incarceration, and racialized sexual terror. Anticipating Nathan Hare’s critical 1970 Black Scholar essay “Black Ecology,” Blues performers analyzed environmental vulnerability and degradation as part of a matrix of anti-Black violence and domination.
Miller, Johnson, and other contemporary artists also press against the preoccupation in bourgeois cultural narratives and thought that center longevity and predictability. While as Amitav Ghosh argues, the novel and other mainstream narrative vehicles exclude the sudden and irredeemable turns characteristic of epic and folk forms, and while wind and water are mostly neutralized as non-agential actors — the mere backdrops of human activity — the Blues, as an extension of the tradition of Black (Blues) Ecologies, incorporate the unexpected intrusion of a force outside the direct control of man with direct agency in human affairs. In our own era, defined by what Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement,” the Blues and the tradition that extends out of it remain an important archival and pedagogical resource for thinking about the reality that the climate is radically unpredictable, that devastating weather events can appear without warning, that there are forces affected by human agency but beyond its control, and that some losses are unrecoverable.
- St. Louis, Tornado Swept, Hunts Victims in Ruins: City Still Checking Her Dead,” Chicago Defender, (October 8, 1927) ↩
- ibid. ↩
- “Cyclone Ruins Negro Section in St. Louis,” Philadelphia Tribune, (November 3, 1927): 9. ↩
- “Tornado Kills 69 in St Louis; 600 Are Injured; Damage is $75,000,000; Wealthy Westside Suffers Heavily,” The New York Times, (September 30, 1927): 1. ↩
- On the co-production of the geological and social margins in the mode of extraction see Kathry Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018) ↩
- Lonnie Johnson, “St. Louis Cyclone Blues,” Lonnie Johnson: Complete Recorded Records, 1925-1932, vol. 3, (Document Records, 1991), accessed through Alexander Street, May 1, 2019. Elzadie Robinson also recorded a version of this song in this period. Robinson, Ezidae Robinson, 1926-1928, Vol. 1, (Document Records, 1994), accessed through Alexander Street, May 2, 2019. ↩
- Luella Miller, “Tornado Groan,” Luella Miller, 1926-1928, (Document Records, 1927), accessed through Alexander Street, May 1, 2019. ↩