Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe: When the Levee Breaks

The 1927 recording of “When the Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy is one of the most influential and important recordings in the history of blues music.

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“When the Levee Breaks” is a Delta blues song recorded by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. The song became a hit and has been covered by many artists, including Led Zeppelin, who included it on their 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV.

The song is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which was one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. Over 16 million acres of land were flooded, and hundreds of people were killed. Around 700,000 people were displaced from their homes, and many of them ended up in camps set up by the federal government.

The flood had a profound impact on the blues, as many musicians were themselves displaced by the disaster. In addition to “When the Levee Breaks”, other songs about the flood were recorded by Memphis Minnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton.

Early life

Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, on June 3, 1897. Her mother, Maud Douglas, was sixteen years old when she gave birth to her only child. Lizzie’s father, Joe McCoy, was twenty-one. They were both black and had been born into slavery.

Memphis Minnie

memphis minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. She was one of thirteen children. Only nine of her siblings survived to adulthood. Her father, Abe Douglas, was a multi-instrumentalist who could play violin, piano, banjo, and guitar. He made a living as a street performer and dock worker.

Minnie’s mother died when Minnie was eight years old. Afterward, she was sent to live with her aunt in Walls Station, Mississippi. When she was nine years old, she ran away from home and began playing music on the streets of Memphis with Joe McCoy, who became her husband and musical partner.

McCoy and Douglas were married in 1924 and began performing together as “Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie.” They eventually settled in Chicago, where they became regulars on the city’s bustling blues scene.

Kansas Joe

Joe McCoy was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1899. He learned to play guitar at an early age and by his teens was performing with his brothers, Charlie and Bill. The McCoy Brothers Band was a popular local attraction, playing a mix of original songs and covers of popular tunes. Joe’s guitar playing was a major draw for the band, and he soon began to experiment with slide guitar techniques.


Memphis Minnie

One of the most important and influential blues musicians of the 20th century, Memphis Minnie was a powerhouse vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1897, she moved with her family to Memphis, Tennessee, as a child. There she began playing guitar and soon began busking on Beale Street. In the 1920s she met and married fellow musician Joe McCoy, with whom she would perform and record for many years.

Minnie was a prolific recording artist, cutting over 200 sides for various labels between 1929 and 1950. She was a master of many styles of blues, from country blues to urban blues to barrelhouse boogie-woogie. Her songwriting was highly regarded by her peers; among her best-known compositions are “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Minnie continued to perform and record until shortly before her death in 1973.

Kansas Joe

Kansas Joe McCoy was a blues singer, songwriter and guitarist who was active in the 1920s and 1930s. He is best known for his work with his wife, Memphis Minnie, with whom he recorded some of the most influential blues records of all time.

Kansas Joe was born in McComb, Mississippi, in 1899. He began playing guitar at an early age and was performing locally by his teens. In 1921, he met Memphis Minnie, who was also from McComb. The two soon began playing and recording together and were married in 1924.

Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie were one of the most popular and influential blues duos of all time. They recorded dozens of songs together, including some of the most famous blues records of all time, such as “When the Levee Breaks” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” The two performed together until Kansas Joe’s untimely death in 1950.

“When the Levee Breaks”

“When the Levee Breaks” is a song written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The song is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. Widespread flooding occurred along the length of the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Illinois, with particularly severe damage in the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

The flood caused over 400 deaths and displacement of nearly 700,000 people. “When the Levee Breaks” was recorded by a number of artists in the years following the disaster, including Led Zeppelin, whose version is one of the most well-known.

Later years

Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe finally returned to Memphis in 1934, appearing at the World’s Fair. They settled in the city for good in 1935. In the years that followed, they continued to be one of the most popular and musically innovative couples on the American music scene.

Memphis Minnie

In 1929, Lizzie Douglas, better known as Memphis Minnie, wrote and recorded “When the Levee Breaks.” The song was inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history.

Minnie was born in Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans. When she was six years old, her family moved to Mississippi. Minnie grew up on a plantation near Clarksdale, and her first exposure to music came from the songs sung by the workers in the fields. She taught herself to play guitar and began performing in local juke joints when she was just a teenager.

Minnie moved to Memphis in 1923 and began playing with a group called the Memphis Jug Band. She soon became one of the most popular entertainers on Beale Street, the city’s historic African-American entertainment district.

“When the Levee Breaks” is a heartbreaking ballad about the devastating effects of floods. The song describes how quickly water can rise and how powerless people can feel in the face of such natural forces. Minnie’s lyrics strike a universal chord, speaking to our shared experience of loss and displacement.

The song became even more relevant after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. In the aftermath of the storm, many people compared Katrina to the1927 flood, and “When the Levee Breaks” took on new meaning as a symbol of resilience in the face of tragedy.

Kansas Joe

In the later years of their partnership, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe recorded some of their finest music. One of their most famous recordings is “When the Levee Breaks”. The song is a blues classic, and has been covered by many artists over the years.


Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe recorded “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929. The song was not released until years later, after it had been covered by Led Zeppelin. It is now considered a classic of the American blues canon.


Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy recorded “When the Levee Breaks” in 1929. The song became a standard of the blues and has been recorded by many artists.

Kansas Joe McCoy – 1929
Memphis Minnie – 1929
Lead Belly – 1941
Big Bill Broonzy – 1941
Bukka White – 1941
Muddy Waters – 1950
Howlin’ Wolf – 1951
Cream – 1968
Led Zeppelin – 1971

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