News coverage of the Baton Rouge flooding suggests that climate change is going to make devastating storms a way of life … and meanwhile, down in the open water of the Caribbean, the first stirrings of this season’s Big Tropical Weather are starting to get people talking.
It’s enough to turn a man’s mind to floods and mayhem.
While surfing YouTube for footage of Hurricane Agnes, still the dominant historical flood in these parts, I came across a bit of local music history that cheered me up, testifying as it did to the resilience of the American do-it-yourself folk music tradition.
A few days after Agnes decamped, two married couples in hard-hit Elmira, N.Y., were relaxing with a singalong after a long day of hauling flood debris. (By their own description, they were strictly amateur singers and strummers.)
They decided the experience might make a good folk ballad. So they wrote one, called “It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured,” and brought a tape to the local radio station, WELM.
At the station’s suggestion, they recut a more professional version, while keeping the simple vibe and instrumentation of the original.
(The finished product sounds kinda like The Basement Tapes, though of course The Basement Tapes wouldn’t be released for another three years. Think of this, perhaps, as The Flooded Basement Tapes.)
“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” became a local hit of sorts, encapsulating as it did a widely shared community hardship. At least 2,000 records of the song were ordered, with profits donated to flood relief.
The male half of the songwriting team even got press-ganged into singing the song as openers for a Buck Owens show at Elmira’s baseball park, Dunn Field. It was, they said, their first live performance.
I’ve listened to the song a couple of times, and while I wouldn’t want to hear it every hour, I think it holds up pretty well in a Woody Guthrie voice-of-the-people kind of way.
While one or two of the rhymes might overreach, those are counterbalanced by the harder, punchier, more specific images. You don’t have to know anything about the city of Elmira to see things like this in your mind:
The old Chemung River was rising like hell
Fitch’s Bridge buckled and fell
Twenty feet of water, muddy and dark
Swirled its way through Wisner Park
I also like that it doesn’t end on a high note. The last verse isn’t about plucky people rebuilding; it’s about damage and destruction.
I wonder if the writers gave any thought to taking the song in a hopeful direction — after all, they’d just spent their day doing flood cleanup — or whether the devastation seemed so total that they didn’t think of a morning after. Either way, I think they went in the right direction.
(Extra points, also, to the local dude giving it his best James Burton on lead guitar. He’s workin’.)
“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” fits not only into the American folk tradition — common people singing about common woes — but also into a contemporary musical zeitgeist.
The Seventies were the golden age of the story-song. And story-songs didn’t have to be cheery or uplifting: If they took a negative cast, that only seemed to make them more popular. (Think of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Angie Baby,” “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” “Delta Dawn,” “Cat’s In The Cradle,” etc.)
With its no-frills local production, “It Sprinkled…” probably wouldn’t have troubled the national pop charts. Still, you could put it in a mix with the aforementioned story-songs, and it would hold its own.
Perhaps I have finally found a new, less doomy earworm for those merciless times when the clouds turn thick and gray and stay that way.