Saturday, December 17, 2016

Music Reviews: When The Levee Breaks

Memphis Minnie (1897-1973) and her husband Kansas Joe were the original writers and performers of "When The Levee Breaks". As you might imagine it was about hard times after a flood that occurred near Greenville, Mississippi. Then as now, most of the people who lived closest to the flood plain were poor people. The song lyrics talk about what happens when the titular event occurs and how people have to find work and lodgings elsewhere. Musically it's a surprisingly upbeat song, considering the subject matter. Memphis Minnie was one of the better known pre-WW2 blues guitarists. She was a huge influence, albeit often unacknowledged, on guitarists who came afterwards. Unfortunately by the time that rock-n-roll begin to take off her particular style of blues was considered decidedly old-fashioned. Also her age and health were starting to work against her by the 1950s. So it goes. Even so her biggest hit, the risque "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" was reworked by Chuck Berry into the raunchy rock-n-roll song "I Want To Be Your Driver". It amuses me how both versions of that song allude pretty directly to subject matter that any adult is familiar with while nonetheless avoiding dirty words. Some songwriters today might want to take a note or two. The titular song of this post was later covered by the British rock group Led Zeppelin. I'm not sure if the group originally gave Memphis Minnie credit but certainly modern releases have her name listed as a co-writer. Most people born after 1950 are certainly familiar with the Zeppelin version, as much for John Bonham's brutal bass drum attack if nothing else. That drum sound would later be sampled by Ice-T for his horror rap track "Midnight". It probably shows up in a few other rap songs as well. 

I like all the versions of this song. I recently purchased the Zeppelin remastered Coda  set. One of the songs on the bonus CD was an alternate mix of "When the Levee Breaks" titled "If It Keeps On Raining". This version makes a more obvious nod to then current funk styles, particularly in the insistent bass line. It is very different from the version that we all know. Obviously Zeppelin was listening to James Brown, Motown and The Meters.

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin' 'bout my baby and my happy home 


If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
And all these people have no place to stay
Now look here mama what am I to do
Now look here mama what am I to do
I ain't got nobody to tell my troubles to 


I works on the levee mama both night and day
I works on the levee mama both night and day
I ain't got nobody, keep the water away
Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good
Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose 


I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works so hard, to keep the water away
I had a woman, she wouldn't do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn't do for me
I'm goin' back to my used to be 


It's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
It's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home


Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe



Led Zeppelin (Alternate mix from Coda) 


Led Zeppelin (studio 4th album) 


Ice-T Midnight
  

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