Blue Monday (Memphis Minnie, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan edition)

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin’ ’bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break
And all these people have no place to stay

Now look here mama what am I to do
Now look here mama what am I to do
I ain’t got nobody to tell my troubles to

I works on the levee mama both night and day
I works on the levee mama both night and day
I ain’t got nobody, keep the water away

Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
Oh cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works on the levee, mama both night and day
I works so hard, to keep the water away

I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I had a woman, she wouldn’t do for me
I’m goin’ back to my used to be

I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
I’s a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home

If you’re looking for an example of how history becomes folklore, you could hardly do better than the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which began in April when the rain-swollen Mississippi River broke through a levee south of Cairo, Illinois. Over the next several weeks, well over a hundred other levee failures occurred, and by the time the flood subsided in August, seven states had seen significant chuncks of their territory indundated, sometimes by as much as 30 feet of water, killed 245 people and displaced thousands more.

The flood contributed heavily to the population shift of American blacks toward Chicago and other industrialized cities of the North. It was also the inspiration for the 1929 blues classic “When the Levee Breaks,” released in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. Two generations of teenagers have grown up with this song through the apocalyptic cover version on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and it is the touchstone for not one but two recent Bob Dylan songs.

The video at the top of this post is chock-full of images that will give you a complete picture of exactly what it meant to have the levees give way in 1927. This next clip shows a more recent instance of what happens to people in the way of a storm:

Led Zeppelin’s version has slightly retooled lyrics, courtesy of singer Robert Plant:

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break,
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break,
When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home,
Oh, well, oh, well, oh, well.

Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home,
You don’t know which way to go?
If you’re goin’ down South
They got no work to do,
If you’re going NORTH to Chicago.

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin’ about my baby and my happy home.
Going, going to Chicago.. Going to Chicago.. Sorry but I can’t take you..
Going down.. going down now.. going down…

Depending on my mood, “When the Levee Breaks” vies with “What Is and What Should Never Be” as my favorite Zep song. The latter song is a fave because of its dynamic shifts: it starts out gently enough for a cocktail lounge jazz tune, then bursts into aggressive riffing, and so back and forth until the wild guitar break and the fadeout.

Zep’s take on Memphis Minnie might be likened to using a sharecropper’s shack as the foundation for a Gothic cathedral. There are no dynamics here: John Bonham’s drums (recorded in a stone stairwell for extra oomph) open like the footsteps of approaching giants,  and the rest of the song is a surrealistic maelstrom of heavily distorted guitars, harmonica and vocals. The song itself is like a hurricane bearing down on the singer. The song, in a word, sounds scary.  

Since all roads lead to Bob Dylan, even when they’re flooded — especially when they’re flooded — the Mississippi disaster flows through parts of his vast song catalogue. Dylan pays direct homage to Memphis Minnie in “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” one of the less objectionable tunes on the mediocre Modern Times album:

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only The Lord could make

Well I worked on the levee Mama, both night and day
Well I worked on the levee Mama, both night and day
I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

I paid my time and now I’m as good as new
I paid my time and now I’m as good as new
They can’t take me back, not unless I want them to

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take

I can’t stop here, I ain’t ready to unload
I can’t stop here, I ain’t ready to unload
Riches and salvation can be waiting behind the next bend in the road

I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
You say you want me to quit ya, I told you no, not just yet

I look in your eyes, I see nobody else but me
I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me
I see all that I am and all I hope to be

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Some of these people don’t know which road to take

When I’m with you I forget I was ever blue
When I’m with you I forget I was ever blue
Without you there’s no meaning in anything I do

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones

Put on your cat clothes, Mama, put on your evening dress
Put on your cat clothes, Mama, put on your evening dress
A few more years of hard work then there’ll be a thousand years of happiness

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
I tried to get you to love me, but I won’t repeat that mistake

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Plenty of cheap stuff out there still around to take

I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head

Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Don’t be a stranger without a brain or heart

If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
If it keep on rainin’ the levee gonna break
Some people still sleepin’, some people are wide awake

Personally, I much prefer Dylan’s earlier paddle across this waterlogged terrain: “High Water Everywhere (For Charley Patton),” from Love and Theft, an album that improves with each listening and keeps building in the mrmory, even as Modern Times slips down the same memory hole occupied by Down in the Groove, Dylan and The Dead, Saved and all the other albums commemorating times when Dylan’s muse was on vacation.

High water risin’ – risin’ night and day
All the gold and silver are being stolen away
Big Joe Turner lookin’ East and West
From the dark room of his mind
He made it to Kansas City
Twelfth Street and Vine
Nothing standing there
High water everywhere

High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions – folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook it – broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all.”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere

I got a cravin’ love for blazing speed
Got a hopped up Mustang Ford
Jump into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard
I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind
I’m no pig without a wig
I hope you treat me kind
Things are breakin’ up out there
High water everywhere

High water risin’, six inches ‘bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m going to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere

Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew
“You can’t open your mind, boys
To every conceivable point of view.”
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five
Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care.”
High Water everywhere

The Cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies
I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes
I asked Fat Nancy for something to eat, she said, “Take it off the shelf –
As great as you are a man,
You’ll never be greater than yourself.”
I told her I didn’t really care
High water everywhere

I’m getting’ up in the morning – I believe I’ll dust my broom
Keeping away from the women
I’m givin’ ’em lots of room
Thunder rolling over Clarksdale, everything is looking blue
I just can’t be happy, love
Unless you’re happy too
It’s bad out there
High water everywhere

Dylan’s oft-demonstrated love of Americana and old music leave no doubt that he’s channeling Memphis Minnie (and the Mississippi Flood) in this song, even if it is dedicated to Charley Patton. This time the floodwaters stretch all the way from Mississippi to Desolation Row, leaving Big Joe Turner and Charles Darwin rubbing shoulders as they swim to safety. 

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