The Diversity of Classic Rock are happy to present a guest blog post from a friend of the blog, Andra Ingram. This post is a deep dive and analysis of the history of Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” – written in the 20s and later covered by Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin cover is better known, but a lot of people don’t know the history, context, and meaning behind the song and those things are important to truly understanding and appreciating it.
Words by Andra Ingram
Racism and sexism in contemporary arts and media are harmful and unnecessary dividers; as consumers of cultural media, we need to police destructive content. But what if marginalisation in art goes unknowingly unnoticed? Who is to blame, the consumer or the producer, the fan or the artist?
Music lovers listen to Led Zeppelin’s infamous “When the Levee Breaks“ without knowing what broken levee they are referring to or realising that the band is referring to a physical levee that did break. Blues artist Memphis Minnie wrote the original version of “When the Levee Breaks“ about her experience of the Mississippi Flood of 1927. She recorded the song with her then-husband Kansas Joe on vocals with Columbia Records in 1929, which was during a time when blues was still recognised as having roots in the hardships of slavery and living as a black American after the abolition of slavery. In 1929, the blues genre had not yet crossed the Atlantic to Great Britain.
It was not until the 60s that blues songs written and performed by black American artists in the 20s through the 50s fell into the hands of white British artists to claim as their own. For example, a majority of The Rolling Stones’ early work appropriated American blues artists, such as their version of Muddy Waters’ song “I’m A King Bee”. Though, of course, art is ambiguous and thrives on inspiration from other artists. Even blues music appropriated African traditions; however, the first blues musicians were black and had ancestral roots in Africa due to the transatlantic slave trade. However, scrutiny should come into play when equity is absent. In regards to the predominately white rock movement, those musicians had links to white Europeans who participated in the slave trade; generations later, they still make profit from marginalised populations’ hardships through music.
In the case of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which featured “When the Levee Breaks“; the record was on its third consecutive year of being on Billboard’s Top 60 when Memphis Minnie died penniless in a nursing home. She is mentioned as a writer for the song on the discography of Led Zeppelin’s immensely successful fourth album; however, according to 1909 Copyright laws, the writer is not necessarily the author and therefore the owner of the copyright (Moser 47, 48). Led Zeppelin had full artistic ownership of their music and albums; in 1968, through a deal with Atlantic, “the band had acquired total creative control—their records would be independently produced without Atlantic input” (Yorke 69). So, it is possible they listed the producer as the owner of the copyright, the producer being themselves, but excluded Minnie from copyright and royalty ownership since she was only listed as a writer and not one of the producers. Her hypothetical exclusion could explain why she died poor despite being listed as one of the writers for a widely successful song.
Another possibility is that her copyright duration had ended, and her song When the Levee Breaks had entered the public domain. Regardless, as a writer, she should have been given royalties, but there are endless loopholes in the music industry that could have prevented her receiving them. Given her impoverished living and depleting health conditions during the last decades of her life, Memphis Minnie deserved either more publicly vocalised artistic recognition or monetary compensation for writing a highly profitable song. Being listed as one of five writers for one song in a discography, which is something hardly anybody bothers to read, was not enough. She was a victim of Led Zeppelin committing the crime of “colonising” a subculture’s genre of music and leaving its pioneers in the dust. Unfortunately, Minnie’s case is not an isolated incident form more than half a century ago. Many other successful blues artists died with no money to show for their success, buried without headstones or markers. Since it is impossible to change or reverse the past, my goal is to bring awareness to the historically and currently unjust sides of the music industry and save women and minorities from living Minnie’s dismal end.
I myself only recently discovered the overshadowing of the beautifully inspiring black female country blues artist. Growing up listening to classic rock, on account of my dad’s influence, I have idolised the British group Led Zeppelin for their creativity and unique output since my childhood and happily listen to them today. I can clearly paint in my head riding in the beige polyester-upholstered backseat of my dad’s dusty-blue Oldsmobile, watching him drum with his fingers and palms on the steering wheel pretending to be John Bonham building a beating crescendo while Jimmy Page executes an intricate, off-beat guitar solo, hearing him attempt to mimic Robert Plant’s screechy yet infectious rockstar vocals.
My childhood nostalgia became tainted, however, when watching an informative YouTube video, that I regrettably can no longer seem to find, explaining the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. “When the Levee Breaks” was not a Led Zeppelin original. The video only briefly mentioned Memphis Minnie’s name, but the jarring fact stuck in my head like an earworm. Upon digging for more information, I found an article stating that Led Zeppelin had been sued for copyright infringement on at least three separate occasions for three different songs, each case having a different outcome (Rolling Stone). The blues artists that challenged them, however, were all established, successful male artists or their surviving family members who had the means to go to court. Knowing that the beloved rock band had used other blues artists’ songs, with minimal acknowledgement, it is difficult to decide whether or not they have completely given credit where credit is due to those artists or endured just penalties for not having done so.
Then again, can justice exist in the greys of creative expression? Only rock and blues aficionados would automatically recognise a cover from an original; an average music consumer, myself included, would not necessarily realise the histories and origins of popular rock songs. Some financially able music aficionados have used their personal resources to start organisations to bring justice to the overshadowed original blues artists, but their small, niche population can only bring so much awareness.
Another complicating factor is the fact that I would never have discovered who Memphis Minnie was without having already been a fan of Led Zeppelin. It is because of Led Zeppelin, albeit indirectly, that I now know the temporarily triumphant story of a southern black woman in the music industry. One could claim that some rock music is blues revival, that rock artists took older music that was fizzling out and created updated versions of the songs, resuscitating them for the public ear. Picture an antique wooden dining chair from Mississippi shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to be reupholstered, stained, and polished; the wood of the chair comes from Mississippi, but the surface, the lacquered colour and the luxurious cushion, credited to European hands, markets it as European furniture. The buyer believes the chair is 100% European until, as in my case, they unintentionally discover that the bones of the legs come from a specific kind of tree that only grows in the humid Southeastern United States, such as the endangered American chestnut, plagued with a history of torment and overrun by a thriving tree species, like oak. The roots of the tree that lent its life to the creation of the original chair are in Mississippi, nowhere near Europe. What then is the buyer’s responsibility with that new information? Do they call out the furniture store for not giving just credit? What if the furniture store is now permanently closed?
What is more disheartening is witnessing evidence of deeply embedded socio-cultural sexism and racism bleeding into other highly consumed expressive art forms. Published in the January 9, 1943 edition of The Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes wrote a piece of descriptive prose, recounting his experience during Memphis Minnie’s performance at the 230 Club just before the turn of the new year. He describes her voice as being “hard and loud anyhow for a little woman’s,” her appearance “like a coloured lady teacher in a neat Southern school about to say, ‘Children, the lesson is on page 14 today, paragraph 2,’” despite also mentioning her high-heeled shoes, flashing gold teeth, dark red nails, trembling earrings, and her dice ring (Hughes). Likening a female performer in front of a crowd to a school teacher in front of her students connotes there are certain roles to which women belong, and other roles to which women are outliers; a more familiar image to Hughes is a woman confined to the four walls of a classroom. Not to imply that Hughes was consciously acting as a sexist, but that the popular ideologies during the time of Minnie’s fame, even within minority groups, are not in favour of empowered women. Despite the cards stacked against her, the crowd moved and hollered with abandon to Minnie’s performance. They were a united front, fuelled by frenetic fret fingering, not worrying about what may happen after the strings became still. Soulful live music enunciates the present moment. Memphis Minnie was the leader of a movement.
But how long did Minnie’s movement last under her name? Was she even aware of Led Zeppelin’s updated version of When the Levee Breaks and her accreditation in 1971? By the time of the album’s release, widowed Memphis Minnie had suffered two strokes, could not speak, and had been bound to a wheelchair for at least ten years. In fact, she died two months shy of the album’s two-year anniversary. Under the care of her youngest sister Daisy and living off of social checks and the generosity of loyal fans, her sole source of musical entertainment was a blues radio station, the only genre of music she desired. Of course her sister Daisy had access to the world outside of the nursing home in Memphis, but whether or not she took interest in the evolving world of rock culture is unclear. In 1966, for instance, the band Jefferson Airplane recorded a cover of her song “Me and My Chauffeur Blues“ and never credited her, never paid royalties, nor was ever accused of copyright infringement (Garon 140). The lack of accusation leads me to believe that Memphis Minnie’s involvement in the current music world ended in the late 50s, more than a decade before her death, entirely unaware of the success of Led Zeppelin’s version of one of her first recorded songs.
All the available facts about Memphis Minnie’s music career, life, and death, serve as a conduit to expose the brutality of the music industry. Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks“ illustrates the effects an influential band can have on a fading and marginalised star, overshadowing a determined artist who staked her claim in a field always widely dominated by white men. Evidence shows, however, that successful bands, whether consciously or unconsciously, follow a musical equation of using familiar sound an audience already enjoys and tweaking it slightly, adding an exciting dash of surprise (Douglas 32). Of course Led Zeppelin intuitively tapped into the equation to succeed in the music industry; their financial gains are blatant evidence. For example, according to Atlantic Records, their album Physical Graffiti grossed over $10 million in retail sales when it was first released in 1975 (Yorke 179). Perhaps their only crime was mastering the perfect formula for musical success. Even though members of Led Zeppelin were not necessarily agents of the injustice, but rather passive participants in the business side of music governed by money-hungry men, my aim is to expose the injustice done to Memphis Minnie.
Despite Led Zeppelin not being entirely guilty, Ritchie Yorke’s Led Zeppelin: A Definitive Biography includes evidence that speaks against their innocence in the matter of overshadowing. In an interview with Yorke, Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant lists his biggest blues influences; either to the fault of Plant or Yorke, half the names listed are misspelled or altogether a different name from the actual artist’s. He states: “My own influences were more blues people like Snoots Elgin [sic], Robert Johnson, Tommy McClellan [sic], and even Bukka White.’” (19). A quick Internet search tells me the names referred to should be Tommy McClennan and Snooks Eaglin, as no blues artists exist by Plant’s quoted names. Sadly, McClennan’s name is misspelled once more in the following paragraph. In attempting to give Plant’s influences recognition, the misspellings of the black artist’s names exemplify the forgetfulness or carelessness of a successful white rock star, his white biographer, and perhaps even the biographer’s editor or publisher.
While people today are more careful about how their music and message affects others, it is important to remember history to prevent it from being repeated. Furthermore, “When the Levee Breaks” came out during a time of Civil Rights protests and political change to give more power to black Americans and women; still, injustice occurred through the entertainment industry. We cannot let this happen again. It is our duty as music listeners to educate ourselves on the origins of our favourite tunes, to pay homage to the creators and their inspirations, and to lift up the voices of those who may have been trampled.
- Douglas, Susan J., “The Zen of Listening”. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, pp. 22-39, 360-363.
- Garon, Paul, and Beth Garon. Woman with Guitar : Memphis Minnie’s Blues. City Lights Books, 2014.
- Hughes, Langston. “HERE TO YONDER: Music at Year’s End,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967; Chicago, Ill., 9 Jan. 1943, p.14.
- Moser, David J., and Cheryl Slay. Music Copyright Law. Course Technology / Cengage Learning, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3136514.
- “Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases.” Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/songs-on-trial-10-landmark-music-copyright-cases-20160608/led-zeppelin-vs-willie-dixon-1972-20160608. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
- Yorke, Ritchie. Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography. Underwood-Miller.
Andra is a writer and content creator living in Nashville, TN. When not juggling web and social media content for a local co-working space, she strives to uplift voices of marginalised musicians through music reviews and essays. You can follow her on LinkedIn and read her reviews on IndieShuffle.
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