White People Whitewash, Again!

On first seeing When the Levees Broke on our syllabus for Metropolis, my mind immediately went to one of my favorite songs, “When the Levee Breaks” by the classic English rock and blues band, Led Zeppelin. Given the bands propensity for sexual innuendo, I always skimmed the lyrics and assumed that the song was just about sexual tension building and exploding based on the two main hooks: “If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ break… All last night sat on the levee and moaned…”

I figured there had to be a reason for the similarity of titles, so I looked into it. A quick google search led me to some seriously interesting finds: “When the Levee Breaks” is a blues song originally written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929– two years after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (referenced in Colin’s post “Performance of Memory & Conspiracy Theories”). Memphis Minnie, originally born Lizzie Douglas, was a prominent blues-rock guitarist and lyricist until the 1950s. She and her husband, Kansas Joe McCoy, A.K.A. Wilbur Joe McCoy, teamed up to become a super songwriting, blues singing, and guitar-slinging duo, achieving great success in modernizing country blues and paving new roads for new sounds. It is pertinent to understand that “When the Levee Breaks” is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, arguably the most devastating flood in U.S. history. With over 200,000 African Americans displaced and homeless, the flood acted as a catalyst that pressured more African Americans to move Northward during the Great Migration. This diaspora is alluded to in Douglas’s original with the lyrics “Oh cryin’ won’t help you prayin’ won’t do you no good / When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose… I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan / Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home.”

Of course, when I discovered this new information I was equal parts disappointed and excited. Zeppelin had a long history of “borrowing” grooves and reworking them into hits; fortunately, the band managed to credit Douglas for the lyrics (although, much later), which is something they are infamously criticized for failing to do with other hooks they “borrow.” Unfortunately, despite the credits given to Douglas, I doubt most Zeppelin fans in 2018 realize the significance of this song. The public rendition of “When the Levee Breaks” done by Led Zeppelin, or any Led Zeppelin cover band for that matter, creates a cycle of continuous “memory and forgetting in one gesture” (Roach 46). While they are calling upon and playing Douglas’s song in a sort of “remembrance,” the significance of her work is forgotten on listeners and viewers who perceive the performance to be an original by Led Zeppelin.

However, despite Zeppelin’s rendition of “When the Levee Breaks” sounding moody while Douglas’s is rather upbeat Zeppelin without a doubt emulates the Delta blues sound with the drone of what sounds like a slide guitar playing consistently throughout the whole song. Moreover, Zeppelin manages to quite literally create a muddy or “sludgy” sound, as the song’s Wikipedia page points out, and in an interview with Page he describes how all the instruments and sounds happening create a “spiraling” around the center which is Plant. Reading this brought me back to Unfathomable City‘s “Sinking In and Reaching Out” which reads, “…a thousand degrees of marshy, muddy, oozing in-between exist…” and Erin’s idea about churning.

Given all this exciting, disappointing, new, and not so new information and reflection, I kind of want to respond to the questions posed at the end of Catherine’s post. I have the same questions and I couldn’t help but see parallels between the way Zeppelin essentially erased Douglas’s presence in their music and the way our culture has erased the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This was a significant event and I barely remember learning about it in middle and high school (however, my peers might have a different experience so the rest of this is from my perspective). It seems as though the flood is glossed in our textbooks despite its importance on U.S. music, economics, and politics. It seems there is a double erasure, or a double forgetting going on: among other things, the Great Mississippi Flood has been and continues to be underrepresented in school curriculum so that nearly no homage is attributed to the actual event. As a result, individuals listening to Zeppelin’s version of “Levee” are doubly dishonored because they don’t understand the historical significance of the song nor do they know who wrote it. The harm doesn’t stop there; I think the true damage is done to Douglas, who, though famous for her work, does not get the honor she deserves for “Levee,” the same way countless other Delta blues writers get whitewashed. So I guess I’ll respond to Catherine by saying, I don’t know how to properly honor something from the past without obscuring the main reason for honoring it, and I don’t know which parts are “allowed” to be forgotten when honoring the past. As far as I’ve seen we’ve done a pretty sh*tty job at remembering, forgetting, and honoring legacies of the past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *