Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

(This piece originally appeared on The Tannhauser Gate — JB)

The infosphere is fairly crackling with the news that the current incarnation of the musical ensemble Fairport Convention Fleetwood Mac has notified one of its elderly members that his services will not be required for their upcoming world tour. More than 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac Drama still grabs headlines.

My favorite story about Fleetwood Mac is that during the Narcissistically tumultuous (my words, not theirs) recording of their 1977 mega-album Rumours, the two remaining founding members of the band (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) repaired to the recording studio’s parking lot to get a breath of fresh air. One of these two gentlemen, not at all at peace with the way things were then developing (at the time, the tattered remnants of the original band were being either re-energized or supplanted by a pair of newcomers), said (or perhaps it is more accurate to write, “whined”) to the other,

“You know, we used to be a blues band.”

To which the other replied, “Yeah. But now, we’re rich.”

(That riposte refers to the fact that while the group was recording Rumours, their most-recently-released recording Fleetwood Mac, which was the first album with newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was topping the charts and already throwing off so much cash that the previously hardscrabble members of the band were buying houses in Los Angeles. But: A blues record, Fleetwood Mac was not.)

That exchange says a lot about the endgame of British popular music’s fascination with American blues music.

Intriguing history, and sound bytes, after the jump link.

Eric Clapton; the original Fleetwood Mac; and Led Zeppelin:

What and where would they have been, absent their early exposure to 1950s-1960s LP transfers of decades-old 78rpm blues records? Clapton stated, “I spent most of my teens and early twenties studying the blues—the geography of it and the chronology of it, as well as how to play it.”

(The same holds true for bebop jazz—Clapton first came to prominence as a member of The Yardbirds, a blues band that was named after the late jazz legend Charlie Parker.)

Muddy Waters visited England in 1958, playing an electric guitar, rather than the acoustic guitar British blues fans expected. (Listen carefully, and you can hear the hinge of history softly creaking.) Waters’ high-energy amplified music inspired the creation of the bands Blues Incorporated (in 1961; which, along the way, at one time or another, employed four future members of the Rolling Stones, and two of Cream) and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (in 1963; which employed the post-Yardbirds Eric Clapton, and also Peter Green, the founder of the first group to call itself Fleetwood Mac). Of Peter Green, B.B. King said, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

More: After Clapton left The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page (later of Led Zeppelin) and Jeff Beck served time there. Clapton, Page, and Beck all spent time in the same band—just think about that.

What all of this meant was that the blues would be the major influence on British rock music of the 1960s and 1970s. This had the effect of both sharpening the distinctions between the rock and pop genres, while putting rock on the path to spawning hard rock, heavy metal, punk, and other genres. Equally important, all the above meant that the sound of blues-influenced British rock would be that of a Gibson Les Paul solid-body electric guitar, played through an overdriven Marshall amplifier.

One can imagine a wall-sized genealogical chart that represents all the fascinating apprenticeships, influences, and connections from 1950s England on, that, to a greater extent than anything else, determined what Americans would hear on their FM radios in the 1970s. (And perhaps something like that has already been created.) But for me, the more interesting thing is the “Why?” of it:

Why did Britons from nearly all walks of life and regions adopt American blues as their musical language?

I think I have at least one valid answer.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Profumo Scandal, the early-1960s political crisis that was the death knell of the old Tory regime—when the Tories eventually returned to power, it was under the egalitarian or at least meritocratic banner of Margaret Thatcher, “the Greengrocer’s daughter.”

In his excellent Profumo Scandal book An English Affair, Richard Davenport-Hines asserts that the defining characteristic of English public life in the 1950s was hypocrisy. Classism, male Chauvinism, conformity, and complacency were all parts of that toxic mix; but the top note was hypocrisy. John Profumo had been cheating on his wife for years before he stumbled onto the front pages of the tabloids. Everyone who was anyone knew it, but said nothing. And Profumo’s secrets were not the only “open secrets” in British society.

In the context of a closed-in society that was obsessed with minute distinctions in class rank, where appearing in public in shirtsleeves could be regarded as a radical break with tradition, I think that the obvious instinctive response to such overwhelming hypocrisy would be, to seek out and embrace authenticity.

For British young people sick of hypocrisy, the authenticity (as well as the otherness) of American blues could be a cleansing and liberating force.

Photo credit: www.knowlouisiana.org

Lizzie Douglas (1897-1973), known as Memphis Minnie, was a blues guitarist, composer, and singer who recorded more than 200 78rpm sides. She and her husband Kansas Joe McCoy recorded “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929. The song was inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

The Great Mississippi Flood displaced 325,000 people (69% of them African Americans) into relief camps that were often located on top of levees. The Flood had major lasting impacts on American society, the most important of which were accelerating the Great Migration of rural Southern African Americans to Northern urban centers, and African-American disenchantment with the Republican Party (which was caused by the Hoover administration’s failure to keep the promises by which it had won Northern African-American votes).

The disc’s label (above) specifies “Guitar accomp.” While I have not been able to find any first-hand reports about the recording session, what is most likely is that Minnie played lead guitar, while her husband played rhythm guitar and sang. The instrumental texture of the song is strangely jaunty for a song about fears that a flood would take everything, including perhaps one’s life. Furthermore, McCoy’s singing is perhaps a bit understated; but it also could be the case that his low-key-ish delivery is what gives the song its authentic touch of poor-folk fatalism.

Truth be told, I would most likely not know about “When the Levee Breaks” except for Led Zeppelin’s 1971 cover, on their fourth album, the one that contains “Stairway to Heaven.” Two songs more dissimilar from each other than Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and their “When the Levee Breaks” cover, it would be hard to imagine.

Whereas the original “When the Levee Breaks” is almost perky in tempo and matter-of-fact in delivery, Led Zeppelin’s re-working is dark in tone (the song was recorded at one pitch and tempo; but in mastering, the analog tape was slowed down to make it sound muddier), symphonic in its aspirations, and operatic in its delivery.

The phenomenon of “British Blues” not only put rock on a decidedly different path from pop (whereas the Beatles had usually managed to straddle that divide); the commercial success in America of British bands such as Led Zeppelin served to introduce American blues to demographic groups that had rejected (or had been incurious about) the original artists and songs.

Early on in this essay, I posed the rhetorical question, whither Eric Clapton, the original Fleetwood Mac, and Led Zeppelin without their exposure to U.S. country-blues recordings from previous decades?

I end by asking, what and where would American blues proponents such as Stevie Ray Vaughan have been, absent British musicians’ examples?

Both versions of “When the Levee Breaks” are available via multiple YouTube postings, so, here is a minute or two of both.

“When the Levee Breaks,” Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (1929)

“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin (1971)

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41 Replies to “Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)”

  1. -Nate

    The Blues was uniquely American music, I love it .

    Rock is great too but different .

    Thanx for this article .

    -Nate

    Reply
  2. safe as milk

    this is a subject that’s fascinated me for a long time. i’ve become a fan of john’s old time radio show http://www.eastriverstringband.com/radioshow/ which is available as a podcast. the host and frequent guest r. crumb play some obscure blues records and other pre-music business era records accompanied by their amusing and often illuminating ruminations.

    Reply
  3. Mark D. Stroyer

    The difference, I feel, is more about the ordering. The British approach took a core of rock and added and combined blues DNA, the American started with blues and stepped it towards rock in the sound. Of course, I’m biased, I can’t stand the Stevie Ray Vaughan school because I find them plodding and egotistic.

    I also feel that many of the subgenres spun off from rock ended up with less scope, less legs because they tried to extricate the blues out of it.

    Reply
  4. John C.

    Those British kids went to their parents saying forget your heroes, ours are the self proclaimed Muddy Water and his ilk. What a knife through the heart. The struggling of generations creating and sustaining an empire and a real society for good while their kids listen to some fool taking handouts in some camp two freaking years after a storm. Of course all that is Herbert Hoover and John Perfumo’s fault.

    People can listen to what they want but I think the music got better when this lazy album filler dropped mostly away.

    Reply
    • Rob De Witt

      Yowsir.

      British kids embraced the blues for the same reasons American kids did – they’d finally found a noise that universally pissed off their parents.

      Reply
    • john marks

      Your comment is so stupid that I cannot think of where to begin.

      But let me try this: A “real society for good” does not enslave people on the theory that “You work and I eat.” Perhaps you have heard of Abraham Lincoln? He believed that it was a crime against God’s law that peoples’ lot in life would be determined by their skin color, and we still (here in the former Colonies) are trying to live up to Lincoln’s vision.

      You, wherever you are, cannot prove that Memphis Minnie did not have as much (or more) musical intelligence and talent as Leonard Bernstein did. But we will never know, because the circumstances of her birth meant that the highest she could rise from playing in streetcorners for handouts, was playing for a traveling circus and cutting a few 78 rpm sides. Had she gone to Harvard and then been schooled at Tanglewood–who knows what great symphonies she might have written?

      Anyway, Boris Goldovsky told me in Russian, “Never argue with a fool,” and I will now take his advice.

      Post author,

      John Marks

      Reply
      • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

        I’m not sure John is attacking the people who made the music so much as the effect that “low” music has had on society.

        Another example. I just watched a documentary on the Roland 808 drum machine. Some of the artistry employed by the rappers and producers of the Eighties is fairly breathtaking — there’s at least one sound that nobody but one person was able to get, even 30 years after the fact, so all instances of that sound are in fact samples. There was some genuine musicianship at work throughout that genre. I was a fan of rap at the time and remain a listener today.

        Yet I cannot argue against the fact that rap music, as a whole, has been a corrosive and destructive influence on society. We would be better off without any of it. No matter how well done, no matter how artistically satisfying. The message that people took from rap was a bad one. The same can be said of most blues and rock — sha, na, na-na-na-na, live for today.

        Reply
      • Rob De Witt

        “You, wherever you are, cannot prove that Memphis Minnie did not have as much (or more) musical intelligence and talent as Leonard Bernstein did. But we will never know, because the circumstances of her birth meant that the highest she could rise from playing in streetcorners for handouts, was playing for a traveling circus and cutting a few 78 rpm sides. Had she gone to Harvard and then been schooled at Tanglewood–who knows what great symphonies she might have written?”

        That’s……breathtaking.

        Reply
  5. john marks

    Dear Brother Jack,

    Let me keep this short and sweet.

    Would you also say that “we” (whoever “we” are) would be better off if the blues had not existed, and did not exist?

    Memphis Minnie sang the blues; she was not a rapper.

    John Marks
    Post Author

    PS: A propos de rien… the idea of the “Concentration Camp” was copied by the Nazis from the British atrocities perpetrated against Boer women and children. So take your Great Empire and shove it, mate. (Addressed to John C., not Jack B.)

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

      I would not be better off, personally. I love the blues and I love rock music.

      Would our SOCIETY be better off if we had not come up with a musical genre that glorified marital infidelity, short-term thinking, violence, and bad behavior? I think you know the answer to that.

      Reply
      • john marks

        Dear Jack,

        Please clarify… are you saying that ***the Blues*** “glorifies” marital infidelity, short-term thinking, violence, and bad behavior?

        My take on the Blues is 180 degrees opposite from that. My take on the Blues is that it bemoans betrayal, violence, and addiction–all those things are regrettable and only to be sung about with regret.

        If what you are saying is that rap glorifies marital infidelity, short-term thinking, violence, and bad behavior, my response to that is, that a lot of rap does. But neither is rock music completely blame-free in that regard.

        Isn’t Lily-White Swedish pop rock group “Abba” ‘s breakthrough bubble-gum hit “Waterloo” really about DATE RAPE?

        My, my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger
        Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight
        And how could I ever refuse
        I feel like I win when I lose

        Well?

        John

        Reply
        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

          Yeah, I’m not making a color, race, or culture argument here. What I said applies as much to “I Want to Hold You Hand” as it does to “A Bitch Iz A Bitch.”

          Popular music generally covers topics that are contra-society. That’s how it stays popular with young people. It’s the anti-social music of rebellion. The fact that you and I might sit around and listen to “Where Are You?” with a drink in hand and regret in our hearts doesn’t mean that a lot of people weren’t influenced into some terrible decisions by listening to Frank.

          I’m going to write a column about this, but the argument boils down to: Pop music of any kind encourages base instincts and it leads to base behavior. That behavior is often pleasant and enjoyable for the person involved but the long-term consequences on society are rarely positive. If every person living in this country for the last 100 years had taken the time they spent absorbing the lessons of pop music and spent it reading Marcus Aurelius or the Bible, would we be better or worse off as we sit?

          Reply
          • rwb

            From the number of incorrigible assholes that can be found emerging from the sediment to try and make one’s day as bad as their own, the message many people take from the fact of existence isn’t net-positive and cannot be handled without sending a temper tantrum into the void. In the absence of any music that glorified hedonism, I can only imagine that anyone who would have been drawn to it for the “wrong reasons” would have found something equally negative to induce the compulsions they’re most comfortable indulging, though I have trouble imagining that absence in any vaguely modern context.

            Every living person has always had the option to be their best, but the more attractive course is to do something ignorant, get a little dopamine hit, and call it a day. Trash exists because people love it, and the world in which we are better than this does not, in fact, exist.

          • Eric H

            Marcus Aurelius maybe.
            The Bible is one of the worst things to happen to Western civilization.
            Religion in general is the worst thing to happen to mankind as a whole, but that’s human nature for you.

            Music no matter how socially corrosive is far down on the list.

          • CJinSD

            There was a time when a blanket condemnation of the bible was about the most blatant expression of anthropological ignorance as could be imagined. Then people started saying climate change was the worst thing to befall mankind…

          • Eric H

            Well, religion is ignorant people spouting nonsense that the expect everyone else to believe. Most climate “science” is pretty similar.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

            Religion is just an operating system for human beings.

            With the right one, you get the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Pax Americana.

            With the wrong one, you get the India-Pakistan war.

          • Ronnie Schreiber

            The Bible is one of the worst things to happen to Western civilization.

            Um, Western civilization wouldn’t exist were it not for the Bible, at least as foundational as Rome and Greece. I’d write more but it’s time for Mincha and I have to say Kaddish for my mother.

          • Eric H

            Ronnie, my condolences.

            While the underlying intent of major religions are noble, they’re all based on the fable of God existing. All have been used for far less noble purposes by practitioners.
            Without the Bible (and the Catholic church that spawned it) civilization could be a thousand years ahead of where it is now. Is that a good thing? We’ll never know because the advancement of society and science was repressed for nearly a thousand years.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

            The Egyptians didn’t have the Bible. Neither did the Chinese. Nor did the Greeks. Where’s their Space Shuttle?

          • Eric H

            Strawman alert!

            The Egyptians had their issues, but that region is more or less responsible for agriculture including irrigation, architecture, astronomy, writing on paper, and the general rise of civilization as a whole. They did enough.

            China is a thousand years or so behind, they started late from their isolation.

            The Greeks advanced mathematics and brought the concept of democracy into the light. They also did some pretty excellent fine arts.

            Progress takes time especially when the dominant religion is actively suppressing independent thought and destroying knowledge that it disagrees with.

          • Jack BaruthJack Baruth

            The Egyptians had two thousand years to make a space shuttle. Or an airplane. Or a building that didn’t use stone.

            The Chinese were isolated? What difference does that make? There were millions of them and they had access to every resource one could desire.

            The Greeks had 650 years. They spent most of it screwing boys and fighting with each other.

            Let’s assume that the Dark Ages really were dark. From the birth of da Vinci to the Wright Brothers you’re looking at 460 years.

            The historical evidence is clear. The fusion of Pauline humanism, Jewish morality, and Christian belief was the engine that lifted humanity out of filth and darkness. The other belief systems had thousands of years to do something similar — technology in 1450 was not significantly better than what the Chinese or Egyptians had. Instead, they built pyramids and forbidden cities.

            Without Christianity, we would still be building pyramids and forbidden cities.

            Without Christianity, we would still be existing as humanity existed for thousands of years.

            I am not arguing the existence of the Christian God — it wouldn’t convince you and you would only be insulted if I did. I’m just saying that the Christian behavior set is provably superior to everything else. Including state-sponsored atheism, which produced nothing of note besides a few symphonies and the MIG-29 in the course of murdering 100-plus million people.

          • Eric H

            Jack, you make my point for me.

            Those cultures you bemoan for not building a space shuttle spent their efforts creating for glory of their gods or god’s representative (King, Pope, Pharaoh, Emperor) on Earth. Once freed from their shackles Western civilization flourished and created the modern world.

            Nowhere have I denigrated the underlying morals of any religion. I simply stated their moral authority is based on fables.

            As for mandated secular societies there have been two major ones that I’m aware of. Both formed under communism (which will never work long term due to the human desire to do a little better then your neighbors) and they have killed a very large number of their own. If you’re trying to convince me that they’ve killed more than religious differences have, it’s going to take a tremendous amount of data to back it up.

            We’ve kind of gone waaay off topic for a post about a song.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        a musical genre that glorified marital infidelity, short-term thinking, violence, and bad behavior

        Blues reflects life, with all its facets, good and bad.

        Reply
    • Panzer

      He wasn’t saying necessarily that the British Empire was ‘great’, more that your (i’m assuming you’re British here) forefathers worked hard to create and defend a society they believed in and that did a lot of good despite commiting a multitude of sins – Which is practically every society that has ever existed.

      And the only reply you can come up with is a riff on this typical liberal fallacy about how slavery, imperialism et al. are ‘white people crimes’.

      Reply
  6. John C.

    My dead British father born in 1919 would want me to correct a few points.

    The British did far more to end slavery both when they banned the practice in the far flung empire 30 years before Lincoln and even policed it with their second too none navy. This anti-slavery stance went on into the 20th century when after ejecting Italy from Ethiopia in 1941, they required Emperor Haile Selassie to renounce slavery in exchange for being allowed back on his throne. It had been common practice in his country and was used by Italy as a justification for their 1935 invasion.

    Concentration camps were used by Spain before the Boer war in Cuba when fighting a countryside rebellion. They forced peasants into urban camps so they could go hard against the rebels. Camps like them of the Boers were infinitely more humane than full scorched earth and death/slavery to all losers as was practiced by most non western so called civilizations.

    I know, it doesn’t matter. Britain and USA bad. Perfumo let himself fall short and be seduced by a honey pot. Glad nothing like that would ever happen in the self proclaimed Muddy Waters. Fleetwood Mac et al would have learn how to do there own thing instead of copying something else.

    Reply
  7. nightfly

    As rather an aficionado of Fleetwood Mac (especially their middle years) I was pleased to see them mentioned here. Maybe it’s a stretch to say they should have been as big as Clapton and Zep and Cream and those others; then again, FM got there eventually. But as one of their own songs says, what a shame – they were doing wonderful work for years despite a punishing recording and touring schedule AND being crazier than a bag of wet cats. (For a while, they were going through guitarists the way Spinal Tap went through drummers… it got to the point where their manager tried to replace all of them and sent a scab band on tour for them without their knowledge, and it was plausible enough to actually fool people, including the would-be band members.)

    I saw a fascinating BBC documentary on it, with interviews from nearly all the members. (I think Buckingham declined.) Should be on YouTube just like everything else seems to be. It’ll be the one that uses a lovely handwritten timeline for transitions, tracing the albums and changing lineups.

    Reply
  8. Dirty Dingus McGee

    *Throws more popcorn in the microwave*

    I have always been a blues fan, be it original, British rock blues, or American rock blues and lately sub genre’s like bluesgrass (Old Crow Medicine Show, Kacey Chambers, etc). In the sixties and early seventies, AM radio was far more prolific for musical variety, as FM was still in its infancy (mostly college stations with low wattage) and on a good night you could get stations that were hundreds of miles away. This resulted, for me at least, exposure to types and styles of music that I wouldn’t have been able to find locally. By the mid seventies, there were more commercial FM stations and none were remotely like they are today.

    By the mid seventies my favorite band was The J. Geils Band, to my ear a great mix of rock and blues. And there are some who think that lead singer Peter Wolf (former DJ at WBCN) should be considered the first “rapper”. Listen to the intro to Musta Got Lost, and decide for yourself.

    Reply
  9. Ronnie Schreiber

    African-American disenchantment with the Republican Party (which was caused by the Hoover administration’s failure to keep the promises by which it had won Northern African-American votes).

    One of the historical facts that is obscured by the “Souther Strategy” myth (which claims that after more than a century of being the party of civil rights for blacks, the Republicans decided in 1968 to flip and appeal to Southern white racists) is that black Americans used to favor Republicans, not vote 90% Democratic.

    The current matter of Kanye West exchanging tweets with Thomas Sowell about the true racial histories of American political parties must terrify the Democratic leadership. I hang with a lot of black folks and in my experience they generally have no idea that the KKK was the militant wing of the Democratic party and that Jim Crow was a Democratic invention.

    Because of the electoral college, Jews have a disproportionate impact on presidential elections. There aren’t very many Jews, but they do have significant populations in critical electoral states, enough to swing those states’ presidential results. The more so for blacks, who are only about 12% of the general population but they’re primarily located in large urban centers in important electoral states.

    The way the math works out, without 85% or more of the black vote, the Democrats can’t win presidential elections. Donald Trump lives large and in charge, something that undoubtedly appeals to black men, and Trump’s approval polling among black men has gone up since the election. For the first time since the 1973 oil embargo, the Detroit economy is growing. Unemployment in Wayne County is just 4.5%. $1,000 might be crumbs to multi-millionairess Nancy Pelosi but to the average working person, that’s a year’s worth of phone or cable service. If Kanye is joined by other influential blacks in questioning the Democratic plantation, the Dems could be facing serious electoral issues.

    Reply
    • CJinSD

      The Democrats are well on their way to packing ballot boxes with votes of people who have no use for the Bill of Rights. That’s why we can’t have a border.

      Reply
  10. Ronnie Schreiber

    I end by asking, what and where would American blues proponents such as Stevie Ray Vaughan have been, absent British musicians’ examples?

    While white American musicians were undoubtedly influenced by the British Blues phenomenon, and learned from them that they could make a good living playing blues influenced music, they could access authentic American blues easily and be influenced directly, not second-hand. Mike Bloomfield was going to south side headcutting sessions when he was a teenager and he learned directly from Muddy and the rest of the Chicago blues scene. The Butterfield band was accepted into that scene and the national blues scene. When Bloomfield was so deep in his heroin addiction that he had stopped playing, his mom had B.B. King call and encourage him. The J. Geils band was the house band at Club 47 on Harvard Square, which had been hosting black blues musicians since the 1950s. Stevie Ray Vaughen played the same blues circuit as guys like Albert King.

    American musicians had the benefit of both the example of the British rockers, and the ability to draw water directly from the well.

    Reply
  11. dotson

    Awesome writeup, great music. Zep did a lot of great covers of blues songs, and they usually gave credit to the originals. At least I’ve heard them mention blind Willie Johnson more than a few times.

    Reply
  12. dotson

    Sorry for the double post, but I think I know now why hipsters collect records. Having grown up in a world where everything is digital and intangible, they probably crave authenticity as well. Listening to these old records on YouTube made me realize this.

    Reply
  13. -Nate

    “Blues reflects life, with all its facets, good and bad.” .

    _This_ it doesn’t glorify anything one way or ‘t other .

    Interesting comments slewing all over the map here .

    -Nate

    Reply

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