Heavy Metal from the Delta – “When The Levee Breaks”

Memphis Minnie

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was a disaster that reshaped the South. With flooding in 10 states, the river below Memphis reached 60 miles across in some places. Not only was farmland swallowed up, but many poor blacks were forced to work rebuilding levees. With no crop that year, many headed north in what was part of a large migration to urban centers.

Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, husband and wife musical partners, were first hand witnesses to the Flood, and immortalized it in their 1929 song “When The Levee Breaks”. They were among the players who brought country blues to the cities, paving the way for Muddy Waters and others who would follow.

Led Zeppelin is considered to be the first “heavy metal” band, the loudest and most technical group of the day, and often worked blues songs into their repertoire. Their well known song “Whole Lotta Love” was so similar to Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love”, that writer Willie Dixon sued them successfully for infringement. Zeppelin’s 1971 version of “When The Levee Breaks” includes Memphis Minnie in the songwriting credits. John Bonham’s iconic opening drum riff has been sampled frequently in hip-hop and r & b songs. Here are Plant & Page performing the song in 1994:

Bob Dylan was at the leading edge of at least 2 musical revolutions. He was a pioneer in the folk movement of the early 1960’s, writing some influential protest songs in a politically charged time. Then in 1965, along with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Dylan “went electric”, shocking many, but heralding the coming rock era. A prolific songwriter, he does not often cover songs written by others. His 2006 release “Modern Times” features a version of the song he titles “The Levee’s Gonna Break”, with many of his own lyrics added.

Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Dural, Jr.) is one of a few Zydeco musicians to achieve mainstream success. Although he began as a rhythm and blues player, he became enamored of Zydeco after 2 years playing keyboards with legend Clifton Chenier.

With his facility on the accordion, he has the ability to fuse Zydeco with many other types of music. His 2009 version of “When The Levee Breaks” is based on the Led Zeppelin track, and features guitarist Sonny Landreth.

Here are the complete versions of “When The Levee Breaks” tracked through time:


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