I always loved rock star names like Sting, Slash, and The Edge. I thought, How cool? These people get to just make up a name, a character, and keep their secret identity. Gordon Sumner and Sting. Clark Kent and Superman. As a kid, I would always brainstorm my rock star name. Thor? Atlas? So many choices. The more involved I became in music, the more I became fascinated with its history. How did it become a thing for all of these rockers to go by a name they made up? Well...let’s take a journey back to Harlem, back to Chicago, back to the Delta.
Memphis Minnie, who should receive her own article, is a fascinating artist. She is considered to be the most famous country blues singer of all time. A one-time sidewalk performer, Minnie was discovered at the age of 16 when she toured with the Ringling Bros. Circus from 1916-1920. By the time “When the Levee Breaks” was recorded, she was a seasoned veteran on the Delta blues circuit. The original recording of “When the Levee Breaks” features country blues singer Kansas James McCoy, her husband at the time, playing rhythm guitar and singing the verses. Minnie plays the lead guitar parts. The duo was signed to Columbia Records in 1929.
As the legend goes, Robert Plant had an extensive collection of American Blues records that he studied inside and out, including a number of Memphis Minnie’s, which resulted in Led Zeppelin creating their version for the multi-platinum IV album. The Led Zeppelin version of this song maintains many of the original lyrics and is credited to the members of the band and to Minnie.
“When the Levee Breaks” is an all-time classic rock anthem, but at its core, it is traditional blues. After what could be considered the greatest drum intro of all time, the song stays close to its roots in both form and expression. Written nearly 100 years ago, “When the Levee Breaks” is a cover song, a reimagining that tells the story of , the most destructive flood in the history of the United States. The story is sad, perhaps too sad to go into great detail, but the damage from this flood affected seven states and displaced more than 325,000 people. This area along the Mississippi River is referred to as the Delta, and this is where Delta Blues was born. Famous artists like Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, and more made their names reflecting life in the South. These are the original rock stars.
"I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away."
"I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home."
When the flood waters began to recede in June 1927, these artists no longer had homes to go to or any way to make a living. They joined the Great Migration with over 200,000 African Americans from the region, relocating to cities in the north, including Chicago and New York.
The song references Chicago, saying, “Thinkin' 'bout me baby and my happy home, Going to Chicago, Going to Chicago.”
In Chicago we see blues develop into a new, more uptempo shuffle style we now call Chicago Blues. Artists like Otis Rush, Little Walker, Bo Diddley, and Howlin Wolf laid the groundwork for American Rock n Roll during this period of time. Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Cream, and every other British and American icon from the 50s and 60s idolized Chicago and Delta bluesmen. When reading biographies and watching interviews, the consistent theme is reverence. To really see this in action, watch the concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, which showcases a concert celebrating Chuck Berry’s 60th Birthday. Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and more are clearly starstruck in the presence of their idols.
And New York? Well, the Delta Blues and Dixieland Jazz developed into Swing that swept the nation as part of what we now know as the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fats Waller became international sensations, making America—specifically New York City—the artistic center of the world.
Inside of every big story is a small story. Behind every rock star name is a regular person planning extraordinary things. It is hard to look beyond the story of the moment, but history reminds us that there is always a bigger story being written. In 1927, the headlines reflected devastation from an unprecedented event and the social unrest of people who had had enough. Who would have thought then that the greatest flood in American history would be the catalyst for movements that would eventually bring the world more beauty, freedom, and prosperity than could have been previously imagined? The levee has broken again, but this time it’s not water. We’re once again seeing a flood of change in our society. Hopefully this, too, will be for the better.