The Day the Levees Broke

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You probably know this Led Zeppelin track.  It’s from their fourth album. When the Levee Breaks. Great song. But it’s more than just a song. It’s a true story. And a really important one in the history of America and her music. It’s all about the Great Mississippi Flood. On April 21, 1927, after a year of record rainfall, the levees keeping the Mississippi River in check collapsed. The water rushed out with double the force of Niagara Falls, devastating the South Eastern United States. It destroyed homes, flooded towns, and killed thousands of people. It was one of the biggest natural disasters we’ve ever seen. And to this day it’s considered the worst flood in American history.

It was more than just a flood. It was a crucial event in the lives of many of the century’s greatest music makers. The chaos displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Mostly African-Americans. And it forced them to begin a mass exodus. What we now call the great migration. Black folk left the devastation of the south to find work in northern urban centers—like St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. That migration is responsible for the blues moving up the Mississippi. If it weren’t for the great migration, there’d be no blues in Chicago. But back to the flood. Everybody who lived near the Mississippi was affected by it. People like Son House. And Big Joe Williams. And most famously, folks like Memphis Minnie and her husband Kansas Joe McCoy. Together they wrote the song that Zeppelin would cover all those years later. “When the Levee Breaks.”