‘When the Levee Breaks’ through time

Musicians responding to extreme weather events is nothing new. Artists have always been storytellers, examining and defining things that happen to all of us. Catastrophic flooding hit Libya, the US, China, Hong Kong, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, and Spain in an 11 day span earlier this year. Thousands of people died and millions were impacted.

Almost a hundred years ago, catastrophic flooding swamped the Mississippi Delta. Hundreds died and thousands were impacted by waters invading their lands, up to 30 feet deep. From 1926 through 1927, floods increasingly denuded lands from Texas to Tennessee, Iowa to Kansas. Thousands of Black families were upended and had to live in tent cities, spurring many to join the Great Migration north.

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

This devastation, like many others, made its way into music. When the Levee Breaks was written by Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) and Kansas Joe McCoy (Wilbur McCoy) in 1929. The lyrics are simple, the tone, plaintive.

File:When the Levee Breaks single cover.jpg
Image by Columbia Records

If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s goin to break and the water goin come, I have no place to stay 
Well all last night, I sat on the levee and moaned thinkin’ bout my baby, and my happy home
If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s goin to break and all these people, have no place to stay
Now look here Mama, what am I to do?
I ain’t got nobody, to tell my troubles to I worked on the levee, almost night and day
I ain’t got nobody, to keep the water away
Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good when the levee breaks, all you got to move
I worked on the levee, almost night and day
I worked so hard, to keep the water away
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m goin back, to my used to be
Mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.

Led Zeppelin

Fast forward almost 40 years. One of the biggest bands in the world at the time, Led Zeppelin, incorporated Delta Blues into much of their music. In December 1970, the band first tackled recording When the Levee Breaks, though that recording wasn’t released for another 45 years. Eventually, the Led Zeppelin version of When the Levee Breaks was released on Led Zeppelin IV (untitled). Critical reception was pretty ecstatic. Audience reaction was even better.

Robert Plant kept a lot of the original lyrics, but added some of his own.

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan, Lord

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
It’s got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home

Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home
You don’t know which way to go?
If you’re goin’ down south
They got no work to do
If you’re going down to Chicago

John Paul Jones & many others

Through the years, artists have recorded versions of both the Led Zeppelin and Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy songs. Last year though, Led Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones revisited Led Zep’s version for Playing for Change’s Peace Through Music: A Global Event For The Environment. More than 20 artists contributed to this amazing version.

According to the magazine, No Treble, this is the artist lineup:

  • Alfredo Arce: Siku Flute
  • Ben Lee: Harmonica
  • Buffalo Nichols: Vocals, Guitar
  • Davey Chegwidden: Dundun Drums
  • Derek Trucks: Slide Guitar
  • Drums of the Pacific: Dancing, Log Drums
  • Elle Márjá Eira: Vocals
  • Jason Tamba: Banjo
  • John Paul Jones: Bass
  • Keith Secola: Slide Guitar
  • Mermans Mosengo: Harmonica
  • Mihirangi: Vocals
  • Nakeiltha Campbell: Dundun Drums
  • Pete Sands: Acoustic Guitar
  • Sebastian Robertson: Electric Guitar
  • Sikiru Adepoju: Talking Drum
  • Susan Tedeschi: Vocals
  • Stephen Perkins: Drums

If you like climate music history, we put together some hurricane songs, some great songs about the climate, and some classic songs about the planet. Sea Us Rise wants to find the climate songs that will inspire people to take action. You can always suggest artists at info@seausrise.org.


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