When the Levee Breaks Original

Origins of the When the Levee Breaks Original

“When the Levee Breaks” tells the story of the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. In 1971, English rock group Led Zeppelin included a reworked version of the song as the last track on their untitled fourth studio album. Featuring John Bonham’s iconic drumming, “When the Levee Breaks” is considered on par with Led Zeppelin’s seminal rock anthem, “Stairway to Heaven”, which appeared on the same album. The “When the Levee Breaks” original was recorded back in 1929 by country blues artists Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy.

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The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927

Both versions of “When the Levee Breaks” are groundbreaking works, but before we get into them, some history about 1927’s Great Flood will provide context.

It was one of the most destructive floods of all time, with 70,000 square kilometres covered by (in some areas) nine metres of water. Around 250 people lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes. The entire levee system along the Mississippi River collapsed. Proving that slavery didn’t end after the Civil War, plantation workers (predominantly black) were forced to work on the levee at gunpoint while whites were taken to safety.

When the levee breached, the workers couldn’t to leave the area. Instead they were made to work on the relief and cleanup effort, living in under-resourced camps. Over 200,000 black Americans lost their homes along the Mississippi River. As a result, many joined the Great Migration from the South to the North and the Midwest. Many compare the events of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to those of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Both times levees collapsed with devastating consequences, largely for the black community.

Memphis Minnie

Minnie was a truly amazing person. She was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897. At around the age of eight, she was given her first guitar as a Christmas present. She learned to play the banjo by 10 and the guitar by 11. Still a child, she started performing at parties. At 13, Minnie ran away to live on Beale Street in Memphis. For the rest of her teenage years, she made her living by playing guitar and singing on street corners. She supplemented her income with prostitution, which was common for female musicians at the time.

Minnie’s Legacy

In 1929, Minnie began performing with her second husband, McCoy. They were discovered by a talent scout for Columbia Records busking for dimes in front of a barber shop. Minnie went on to become one of the most famous blues musicians of all time. She recorded around 200 country blues songs and was one of the first 20 artists to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Minnie did everything the boys could do, and she did it in a fancy gown with full hair and makeup. She had it all: stellar guitar chops, a powerful voice, a huge repertoire including many original, signature songs and a stage presence simultaneously glamorous, bawdy and tough. She transcended both gender and genre.”

memphismusichalloffame.com

When public interest in blues music waned in the 1950s, Minnie retired from her musical career but still made appearances on Memphis radio. She suffered a stroke in 1960 which left her confined to a wheelchair. She passed away in 1973.

The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie’s songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own.”

Inscription on the back of Minnie’s gravestone

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Kansas Joe McCoy

Wilbur “Kansas Joe” McCoy was born in 1905 in Raymond, Mississippi. He was the older brother of the blues accompanist Papa Charlie McCoy. Like many musicians in the 1920s, he was drawn to the music scene in Memphis, where he played guitar and sang.

After he and Minnie divorced, McCoy teamed up with his brother Charlie to form the Harlem Hamfats, a band that performed and recorded during the late 1930s.

In 1950, McCoy died of heart disease in Chicago, only a few months before his brother died. Like many blues musicians of the era, McCoy was buried in an unmarked grave. However, a tribute concert organised in 2010 to celebrate the music of Joe and Charlie McCoy raised funds to buy gravestones for both brothers.

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Recording When the Levee Breaks

Minnie and McCoy’s greatest hit was “Bumble Bee” which they recorded in 1930. But earlier, in June 1929, they recorded “When the Levee Breaks” during their first session with Columbia Records in New York City.

McCoy performed vocals and rhythm guitar. The more accomplished guitarist, Minnie, played lead guitar using a finger picked-style with “Spanish” (or open-G) tuning. Columbia issued “When the Levee Breaks” on the then-standard 78 rpm phonograph record, with another vocal performance by McCoy, “That Will Be Alright”, on the B-side.

Reception of the When the Levee Breaks Original

The record came out before record industry publications, such as Billboard, began tracking “race records”. However, “When the Levee Breaks” became a moderate hit.

“When the Levee Breaks” is a country blues song, with an old timey feel. The instrumental accompaniment to McCoy’s singing is sparse, but magical. Minnie had amazing talent. It’s an easy song to listen to, despite the hard story it tells. The pictures that accompany the following YouTube clip are well worth checking out.

Zeppelin’s Recording

Led Zeppelin’s lead singer, Robert Plant, had Minnie and McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” original in his record collection. He suggested the band record their own version of the song for their fourth album.

Plant used many of the “When the Levee Breaks” original lyrics, but songwriting is credited to the members of Led Zeppelin as well as to Minnie and McCoy. Led Zeppelin’s version didn’t follow the “When the Levee Breaks” original traditional 12-bar blues structure. Instead it used a one-chord, modal, approach, with a harmonica added. Parts of the song were recorded at different tempos, then slowed down. This effect gave “When the Levee Breaks” its amazing “sludgy” sound. It’s especially notable during the guitar and harmonica solos.

That Drumming

What set the song apart was guitarist Jimmy Page’s guitar riff and Bonham’s drumming. The drums were recorded in a stairwell at the famous English rehearsal and recording venue, Headley Grange. The microphones were set up three stories above so that Bonham’s drums echoed upwards. The sound captured was distinct and innovative. Bonham’s drumming is now one of the most admired in popular music. It’s been sampled by the Beastie Boys on “Rymin’ And Stealin'”, Dr Dre’s “Lyrical Gangbang” and Coldcut’s “Beats and Pieces”.

It’s the drum intro of the Gods. You could play it anywhere and people would know it’s John Bonham. I never had the chance to tell dad how amazing he was – he was just dad.”

Jason Bonham, interview with Q magazine

Live Performances

Due to its extensive processing, “When the Levee Breaks” was difficult to mix. The full version is also very difficult to perform. In fact, Led Zeppelin have only performed it live twice: once in a “warm up” gig in Denmark before their 1975 US tour, and then in Chicago, on the second night of that tour. However, Plant and Page played an acoustic version on their 1995 No Quarter tour, swapping it with “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” on different nights.

Reception of Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks

Critics praised Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”. American music journalist Robert Christgau cited the song as the fourth album’s greatest achievement. AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine said the song was:

…an apocalyptic slice of urban blues … as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got, and its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine

“When the Levee Breaks” is indeed an amazing song. The combined guitar and harmonica make a magically foreboding sound. You’re really taken on a journey with this song.

In the twentieth century, English musicians had a tradition of adopting black American music then taking it back to the US. I’m interested in black Americans’ reaction to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”. There are plenty of YouTube reaction videos and the response is an overall positive appreciation of the music. I’d love to learn more, however, considering that the black history of Minnie and McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” is of such vital importance.

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References
Encyclopaedia Britannica - Mississippi River Flood of 1927
last.fm - Memphis Minnie When the Levee Breaks
Songfacts - When the Levee Breaks
Turn Me On, Dead Man - When the Levee Breaks
Wikipedia - Great Mississippi Flood of 1927
Wikipedia - Kansas Joe McCoy
Wikipedia - When the Levee Breaks

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