The Great Flood director Bill Morrison on collaborating with Bill Frisell

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New York-based filmmaker Bill Morrison had already made two short films using Bill Frisell's pre-recorded music, but Morrison wanted to work with the well-known jazz guitarist on a longer project. That effort would become The Great Flood, a documentary that they started collaborating on a few years ago and released on DVD last year. Using film footage from the Fox Movietone News Collection and the National Archives of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 (the most destructive flood in American history), Morrison assembled the eighty-minute film. There's not a word in the movie -- much less dialogue or narration -- just Frisell's score to accompany the visuals of the catastrophe.

In advance of a screening Saturday, July 19 at the Boulder Theater, we spoke with Morrison about what inspired him to make the film. See also: Bill Frisell on working with Dale Bruning

Westword: How did you initially meet Bill Frisell?

Bill Morrison: I was washing dishes at the Village Vanguard for the early part of the 1990s. I was like a barback. And Frisell was coming down there with some regularity -- a couple times a year. I just got really taken by his music then. I would come back even on the nights I was working to listen to him. Also, he was just such a straight-up guy. You know, there were some musicians who discounted me or whatever just because I was a dishwasher, and Bill always regarded me as a person -- and then he found out later that I was a filmmaker. But he was always very respectful and I always very touched by that.

More to the point, his music really started inspiring my work in the spaces that he used. So I was listening to a lot as I was making an early film -- a very important film for me, anyway -- called The Film of Her. I just decided I wanted the film to have the same kind of quality that his music did. So I ended up putting a pre-recorded track of his on that film.

Of course, I eventually gave it to him to listen to and watch, and some years later he asked me if I wanted to do another silent film that he could score for the New York Guitar Festival. He said, "Just do the same thing you did before. Use a pre-recorded track and then I'll write new music on top of that." I had this footage that I was waiting to do something with. It was an old, deteriorated print of a 1926 film called The Bells, directed by James Young. And I ended up making a film called The Mesmerist using a couple of tracks from Bill's record with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, which is still one of my favorite records.

Then, after he heard that, he said, "Well, I wanted to write something new but this works so perfectly, I prefer just to play the tunes you chose in concert with the film. I'm totally fine with that." But we also sort of made a promise to one another that we would work on a new project from the ground up. So I had in my mind that I was looking for something like that to do with Bill, and then the idea of doing The Great Flood came to me, and it came to me from a couple of different sources. One was that I had started working with old footage showing floods and started realizing that a lot of it was from the '27 flood that probably a lot of people had not seen. And secondly, then [Hurricane] Katrina came and flooding became a national topic, even before we experienced our flood here [in New York] in 2012 or you guys had your floods last year. Just all over the world, in Bosnia and Serbia this year.

I think increasingly floods are going to become newsworthy every year. So the '27 flood sort of became something topical again, really, in the wake of Katrina. And also how it displaced so many sharecroppers. I understood that it played some role, however peripherally, in the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north. And, of course, just around the same time, the guitar was being imported and integrated into blues music. You can make this case that as the Delta blues and jazz were coming up from the south to the north, the music was becoming electrified, and the great melting pots in the northern cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York where R&B was being born of course led to rock and roll and electrified blues and became popular music as we know it today.

What initially drew you to the flood footage of 1927?

I was working on a different project in 2005 that was just about the topic rather abstractly of shelter. So I just had it in my mind that I wanted old aerial footage of flooded landscapes and flooded towns. There's an archive that I often hit up for old news footage and that's at the University of South Carolina. They have the old outtakes from the Fox Movietone newsreels, which aren't copyright-protected by anyone except the University of South Carolina. And also, instead of being edited newsreels, they have all this run-on footage -- just the raw camera rolls. They started making really nice scans for me and going back to original nitrate negative and scanning it in new HD resolution.

I sort of knew back from working in 2005 that that footage existed. Then I was in Baton Rouge showing some films a couple of years later in 2007, after Katrina. I was at a dinner party and the course of the conversation was in some way related to Katrina because it was just so impactful down there. They started talking about this book by John M. Barry -- it's a 1996 book called Rising Tide that's about the 1927 flood. [They talked about] the parallels between that flood and Katrina just because any flood will sort of expose the class differences in any community, or the weaknesses in any community will come out as soon as it's stressed by a trauma like that. Suddenly certain people are doing the work and certain people are getting preferential treatment to get out, and that become really painfully obvious to everyone.

That conversation was about how in some ways how little had changed. But I also understood, almost immediately, that was the book I wanted to read and maybe this was the project that I wanted to do with Bill because, of course, his music is not the Delta blues or anything you could necessarily classify as jazz. It's just something so uniquely hi, yet of course it comes from that. I thought it would be even more powerful to make the connection that this very unique and personal voice of a musician is sort of related like a far-off tributary into this great river. Keep reading for more from Bill Morrison.

From what I gather, you toured with Bill and his band in the south?

That was a whole other coincidence. Bill being an improvisational musician, he really does a lot of his writing on the road or in soundcheck or during rehearsals in the studio while they're recording. It happens with his bandmates in the same room. What he'll do is write down a phrase on staff paper and then copy that four times and pass it around so everyone will have that phrase, and then he'll do another one. He'll kind of mix and match and they build their songs and their bridges that way. It's a really fascinating process to watch, but it really happens sort of onstage and as they're hashing out ideas together.

His idea was there could be sort of a mobile residency. In other words, a tour that otherwise would not be necessarily viable to smaller towns in venues in the South. That would give them a sense of that area and also a chance to work on this new material he was writing. We booked that well in advance of spring of 2011 when he came with the music, and eight or nine dates were booked throughout Tennessee and Texas and New Orleans and Mississippi, Missouri and Iowa and up to Chicago. The one thing that we couldn't anticipate was that the river -- the Mississippi River itself -- was at high levels that it hadn't been since 1927 so we all had that experience of being in Vicksburg and standing on the levee and wondering if the levee was going to hold. And everyone sort of being anxious and the town having been evacuated -- just sort of this insidious feeling of apprehension that comes at high level because it's not this big, cataclysmic explosion, it's just sort of, "Well, I hope this holds." It's kind of a nervous feeling.

Why go with a silent film of sorts with just Bill's score and why not any sort of narration?

For one thing, the footage itself is from silent newsreel footage, so it was in keeping with the form and the spirit of how it was shot. Also, there are things that can be said better without words. For instance, there's one sequence that's about ten minutes long of people digging out and digging their town out. There's no way you could talk about that for ten minutes -- that there was a lot of mud and people dug it out. Seeing it and experiencing it and watching people do it for ten minutes really gives you an idea of how powerful this water was and how much destruction it brought, and how much work it was to dig it out.

You also see that people are laughing sometimes and sometimes they're trying to make the best of a bad situation. Sometimes you're seeing who has to do the work and who doesn't have to do the work. There are all these different layers that come from examining people digging mud out of a town that no talking head or narration would give you.

The other thing is that I am just personally resistant to people telling me what an image means or what to think about it. I'd much rather the images present the issues and you discover them sort of first-hand rather than being mediated by me -- the director -- or another narrator saying, "Now you can really tell the black people are being exploited here." I'd much rather you see over the course of the film that there are laborers doing all the work and they happen to be black. And that existed before the flood, during the flood and after the flood. The finale -- when these people get on the freight train, and this is actually these same people leaving the Delta for good -- it's something of an emancipation. It's a very powerful feeling that I don't think words can give you.

It was very much conceived of as a collaboration with Bill and a collaboration that would sort of happen fifty-fifty where he would be carrying as much of the emotional weight as the images would, and that these two things would exist sort of hand-in-hand. And that you'd be experiencing the images in the same kind of mind that you were experiencing the music, and there wasn't a disconnect where somebody would step in and say, "Okay, I'm showing you these images" -- just like nobody would say, "I'm playing this music for you." You can just receive the music and you receive the images firsthand. I put in that directness and I wanted to give the audience the respect that they would understand what it's about without them having being told.

What would say that Frisell's music adds to the visuals?

In a lot of ways, it's a voice. He's written what I consider some of the best music that he's written since that record that I mentioned before with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones. It's very powerful, emotional music. Of course, it informs the images that way. There's also a great deal of irony in it, or humor. There are these up-tempo pieces that he includes in any set that he plays -- music I would liken more closely to [Thelonious] Monk, where it's kind of nutty and off-kilter. In a way, in that case the music is sort of ironic. Like there's one sequence that's about the planned destruction of a levee that's going to flood two poor parishes to save New Orleans. In this case it's sort of done with this... you've seen all the explosions but it's tragic. What's happening is that you're seeing state-sponsored destruction of poor people's property so that the music is kind of ironic and happy and business as usual.

It's adding different layers in different contexts.... People could misunderstand that. They could be, "Well, why is this happy music playing during this awful atrocity." I've read things online where people don't get it, but I think you have to be attuned to where Bill's coming from and where I'm coming from, and what the film is about.

The Great Flood will show at the Boulder Theater on Saturday, July 19, with a live score from Bill Frisell, along with Ron Miles, Tony Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson. The show starts at 8 p.m.; buy tickets here.

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