A good song is often inspired by some painful experience, like a breakup or a death, or even a catastrophic natural event like a flood. So, after hundreds of thousands of people lost everything in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the blues duo of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie were well-equipped to use their firsthand observations of the calamity to write and record “When the Levee Breaks.” It became classic decades later, not so much because of their original 1929 version, but thanks to a blues aficionado named Robert Plant.
The original recording – with seven verses in a typical A-A-B, 12-bars blues structure, and two verses repeated – didn’t have much of an impact at the time, at least not as much as other material by the duo would. Minnie was already the Mississippi Delta’s premier female artist and was an experienced professional musician, but only McCoy sang on “When the Levee Breaks” while they both played. It’s not really clear who wrote what parts of the song, but the recording’s jaunty uptempo performance didn’t really fit the lyric of despair and teeth-gnashing. The playing seemed more influenced by Piedmont blues innovator Blind Blake than by the musicians in the Delta, and McCoy’s somewhat pedestrian vocal delivery didn’t really give the lyric the edge it called for.
Some 40 years later, a famous rock singer named Robert Plant, who wore his affection for the blues on his sleeve, reportedly passed a copy of McCoy and Minnie’s song to his bandmate Jimmy Page for a listen. The result was Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks” from the band’s historic fourth album. Plant changed the lyrics a little and made his own additions and ad-libs, singing four of the original verses almost verbatim but in a different order. Then he added a bridge of sorts with 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/Then you go north to Chicago. Plant sang with far more power and painful emotion than McCoy had, and his wailing blues harp and John Bonham’s legendary huge drum sound made the song a timeless classic for a new generation who had never heard of McCoy or Minnie. But the writing credits on the label appropriately listed the name of Memphis Minnie with the names of Led Zeppelin’s members.
Today, much more of the world is familiar with McCoy and Minnie’s original version of “When the Levee Breaks,” thanks to the Internet and modern-day Memphis Minnie devotees like blues vocalist/guitarist Erin Harpe. Minnie became a legendary singer and guitarist who beat Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest in Chicago, where she and McCoy moved to long before Plant sang about the city. She far outlived McCoy, who went on to have greater success as a songwriter than as an artist. She was still alive when Led Zeppelin cut “When the Levee Breaks,” hopefully receiving some of the royalty money due her before she died.