In 1927, a major flood occurred devastating the Mississippi Delta. Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana received the brunt of the flooding. Over 200,000 blacks were displaced to northern states and metropolitan centers. Some 27,000 square miles of the lower Mississippi River region were under wanted, completely destroyed. At one point the Mississippi had swollen it’s banks to where it was 60 miles wide in places. Something had to be done so this would not… could not happen again. Blacks in the south were the most affected by the flooding. They had few choices for survival. The Negroes options were; to head north to the industrial areas and hope to find work or stay. Migrating North meant leaving their meager belongings and family behind. Of course their other option was to stay, but that was no choice at all. The brutal work of recovering from such a devastating event, fell squarely on the shoulders of the black men and women of the Delta.
Black men were conscripted in to working on the levees. It was dangerous work and there were little concern for safety. Many died as they slid down the slippery slopes in to the raging Mississippi River. If they attempted to flee they could be shot, by white enforcers who oversaw the work from horseback equipped with a shot gun or rifle. The new levee walls would be built by slave labor nearly 70 years after the 13th amendment was ratified, outlawing slavery… or so it was thought.
Many songs have been written about the work on the levees but known more famous than “When the Levee Breaks” written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas City Joe McCoy. The song was first recorded By Minnie and KC Joe in June of 1929, on the Columbia label. The lyrics were used in the British rock group, Led Zeppelin’s version. The song is on the album Led Zeppelin IV released in 1971. It is a hard driving rendition that opens with a pounding beat then cascading in to a kaleidoscope of sounds and music, dominated of course by Jimmy Page’s guitar, followed by Robert Plant in one of his finest vocal performances.
Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897. Kansas City Joe McCoy was born in Raymond Mississippi in 1905. Memphis Minnie left home at the age of 13 and went to Memphis, where she played on the street corners for change. Minnie at one point took up prostitution as a means of income, which wasn’t that out of the ordinary for female performers who were in a field dominated by male Blues guitarists/singers. Her marriage to Kansas City Joe was her second, and they toured and performed together. eventually Minnie would divorce Joe and move to Chicago, establishing herself as a formidable presence in the Blues clubs there along with her husband at the time Ernest Lawlars. She also did some recording with Charlie McCoy, Joe’s younger brother. Minnie continued to play into the 60’s until her health started to decline, she died in a Memphis Nursing Home in 1973. She was 76 years old.
Kansas City Joe didn’t fair as well as his estranged wife. However, he did continue to play, sometimes teaming up with brother Charlie forming the Harlem Hamfats. They recorded several records on the Decca label. Their biggest hit was “Oh, Red”. After the breakup of that group, he formed Big Joe and the Washboard Band which then became Big Joe and the Rhythm. McCoy died in 1950. He was 44 years old.