Oh, you got to roll,
Just like a hunter’s hound,
Lord, if you can’t roll, get your britches down.
—David “Honeyboy” Edwards, “You Got to Roll” (recorded Clarksdale, 1942)
Levee camps were temporary settlements erected along the Mississippi River from roughly 1880 to 1940 to support the construction, repair, and enlargement of the great earthen levees that run along both sides of the river’s banks. The typical levee camp that flourished during this period housed an almost exclusively black male workforce of seasonally employed mule drivers, overseen by white foremen and levee contractors, though black women also came to the camps to live with and cook for individual workers or to serve as paid cooks in camp commissaries. This style of levee camp was especially numerous in the low-lying Arkansas-Mississippi Delta (located along both sides of the river between Memphis and Vicksburg), which saw some of the most extensive levee construction projects during this period.
The vast majority of black levee workers were either cotton sharecroppers attempting to earn cash during down periods in the plantation cycle or other workers who came from a sharecropping background and thus had the expert mule-handling skills required for levee construction. Typically located in remote areas along the river’s edges, levee camps gained a notorious reputation for long work hours, exploitative commissary and pay practices, harsh forms of white disciplinary violence, and a wild and violent after-hours work culture characterized by drinking, gambling, fighting, and sex. Indeed, these aspects gave levee camp life a prominent place in early blues hollers, songs, and folklore from the region.
The traditional style of levee camp was a product of the mule-based construction practices that increasingly characterized levee building after 1880. The first mule-powered equipment used for levee building was the slip scraper, or slip, which had a cutting blade on the front of an open receptacle that filled up with earth as it dragged along the ground behind the mule. Wheeled scrapers, or wheelers, were developed shortly thereafter, using a larger blade and bucket that could be lowered and lifted; each one was pulled by multiple mules. (The blues song “You Got to Roll” referred to the work of rolling a wheeler.) Shortly after 1900 wagons attached to elevating graders were used alongside slips and wheelers. Elevating graders, which were pulled by mules or sometimes by steam or diesel tractors, lifted excavated earth to the wagon by means of a conveyor belt powered by the turning of the equipment’s wheels. Increased federal funding for flood control following the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 dramatically speeded mechanization in levee building, though traditional mule teams continued to work alone or alongside more mechanized equipment for at least another decade. The full mechanization of levee construction culminated with huge drag-line levee-building machines, which were in general use throughout the Delta and Lower Mississippi by 1940 and made the traditional mule-team levee camp mostly a thing of the past.
As a labor site, levee camps provided the promise of mobility and cash wages to sharecroppers otherwise bound to the land by debt. Levee work therefore posed a potential threat to the Delta’s racial-economic order, especially during the Great Migration, when white planters were already concerned about sharecroppers’ increased mobility. White contractors and foremen organized the levee camp work site so that it reproduced patterns of racialized subordination common to the region as a whole, using an exploitative commissary system and administering ritually humiliating beatings in which workers were stripped naked and beaten on their bare hindquarters (reflected in the blues line, “If you can’t roll, get your britches down”). Although these conditions had long been the subject of blues songs and hollers from the region, they were further confirmed in a series of 1930s investigations initially spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and later continued by the American Federation of Labor and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Levee contractors also organized gambling, prostitution, and the sale of alcohol in the camps, taking a share of the profits and lending workers money under usurious terms to participate in these activities. Evidence suggests that contractors also supported a certain level of black-on-black violence in the camps as a means of labor control, as reflected in contractors’ reported instruction to workers, “Keep yourself out of the grave, and I’ll keep you out of jail.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the after-hours activities in the levee camps attained an almost mythic status in black oral culture from the Delta region and attracted the early attention of Alan Lomax and other folklorists. However, Lomax and others generally accepted oral accounts of these activities as testimonies of fact. In what was likely a more accurate assessment, Fisk University sociologist Lewis Wade Jones (who collaborated with Lomax in 1941 and 1942) acknowledged that the levee camp was indeed “wild and lawless” yet also observed that “it is difficult to get at facts behind the legend and lore of the levee camp.” Ultimately, he concluded, “For the folk of the Delta the legend and lore are the facts.” Indeed, more recent scholarship has suggested that the tales of after-hours activities represented an effort by black men in the Delta to reinscribe a sense of masculine autonomy and authority in a social order that offered them few freedoms.
- James Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- John Cowley, Journal of Folklore Research (May–December 1991); Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941)
- Adam Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (2002)
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993)
- Michael McCoyer, International Labor and Working-Class History (Spring 2006)
- US Congress, House Committee on Labor, Regulation of Wages Paid to Employees by Contractors Awarded Government Building Contracts (Hearings), 72nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13, 22 January 1932)
- Roy Wilkins, The Crisis (April 1933)
- John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)