Monday, July 5, 2021

When the Levee Breaks

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy.  Memphis Minnie wrote the original version of "When the Levee Breaks," and recorded it in 1929 with her second husband and musical partner Kansas Joe.
If you're anything like Thee Optimist, during your youth, you were blown away by a rock song called "When the Levee Breaks," which appeared on the fourth Led Zeppelin album (untitled, but commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV)

Led Zeppelin were one of the great bands of the rock era.  They were also very good at "borrowing" the music of earlier musicians, and in many cases, not acknowledging this.

Not always, but often enough, the musicians they borrowed from were black blues musicians of the early 20th century.

Led Zeppelin were thieves, basically.  They would have stolen the nails out of the cross. 


"That was it, a nick.  Now happily paid for.  Well, you only get caught when you're successful.  That's the game." 

- Robert Plant (singer of Led Zeppelin) on settling the lawsuit for stealing Willie Dixon's lyrics to "You Need Love" for the Led Zeppelin song "Whole Lotta Love."


Recently, I was listening to "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zeppelin, and was reflecting that it is one of their best songs.  It's a monster.  Suddenly, it hit me: "There's no way they wrote this."

Which was (more or less) the correct thought.  They wrote the music, certainly, but the lyrics describe a heartbreaking experience that they did not have.

Who was Memphis Minnie?

Memphis Minnie was a guitar player, singer and songwriter, who was born Lizzie Douglas in 1897 in Algiers, Louisiana.

She had a career that spanned the 1910s, '20s, '30s, and the '40s, and she recorded more than 200 songs for at least seven different labels.  Although much of it was compiled into albums later, all of her music was originally released as singles on 78 rpm records.    

She wrote and recorded "When the Levee Breaks" in 1929 for Columbia Records.  The song is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which rendered more than 200,000 black Americans temporarily homeless, and contributed to the Great Migration to northern cities.  

A refugee camp for people displaced by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

Memphis Minnie was living in Walls, Mississippi, outside of Memphis, Tennessee, when the flood hit.  Her song tells the story of a person whose life is upended by the flood.

The song was recorded in New York City on June 18, 1929.  The singer is Kansas Joe McCoy, Minnie's husband at the time.  Minnie is the finger-picking lead guitar player.

Yes, it sounds nothing like the Led Zeppelin version.  Interestingly, in this case, Zeppelin included a songwriter credit for Memphis Minnie.  

Here's the original:

In 1929, music industry publications hadn't begun tracking sales of so-called "race records" (music marketed to African-Americans), so there is no way to know how well the record sold.

What is known, is despite the sheer volume of music she recorded, and the fact that she played live gigs for decades, Memphis Minnie did not get rich during her career.  In fact, like many women blues musicians of the early 20th century, at times she supplemented her income with prostitution.

After retiring, she returned to Memphis, where she lived in relative poverty.  Her third husband, Ernest Lawlars, died in 1961.  Repeated strokes left Minnie confined to a wheelchair.  She could no longer subsist on Social Security payments, and began to receive money sent directly by her fans.  

She died in 1973.  She is buried in Walls, Mississippi.

A photo of Memphis Minnie from 1940, which is on her headstone.


  1. Thank you for writing about this. Older blues artist often don't get enough credit for their musical contributions. I used to a blues show as a deejay at a college radio station. I did a regular feature in which I pointed out the "white boys" who stole an old blues song. I gave credit to the original artist or songwriter and played both versions back-to-back. I would then ask callers for their feedback. When I featured "When the Levee Breaks," it was the only time callers said they thought the newer version (by Led Zepplin) was unquestionably better than the original. I actually agree. I thought Zepplin captured the mood (one of loss, hopelessness and desolation) better than the uptempo, sprightly, buoyant-sounding Memphis Minnie version. More simply put, the Zepplin version matches the lyrics better than Memphis Minnie's version. Unlike Memphis Minnie, Zepplin makes great use of musical "spaciousness" to convey this. But, hey--it's all just opinions. And I don't have to tell you what they say about opinions...,

    And, not to make this about me, but I have also had to "supplement my income with prostitution."

    But I have no regrets.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment. I didn't really want to say it in the post, but yeah, sure. The Zeppelin version is better. As a practical matter, Led Zeppelin were so good, it would be hard for anyone to do a better version of anything than they did. Including the people they "nicked" from. The thing to remember, IMHO, is the transcendent Led Zeppelin version of "When the Levee Breaks" wouldn't have happened if Memphis Minnie hadn't written and recorded the original in the first place.

  2. It's a lie. Zeppelin never stole anything. They were always the best. Earlier bands "borrowed music from Zep. Retroactively.

  3. "borrowed music from Zep retroactively"??? Whoa!?!