Music for the Apocalypse #32: When the Levee Breaks, by Led Zeppelin

by Apocalypse Womble

When you start compiling a list like this, you check out the competition. Sad but true, we at The Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse cannot claim to be the first to try and create a music collection for it. It’s one of those things, as Mark Owen said:

Four minute warning,
Everybody wants to know,
What should we do?

Which song or songs do you pick to go out to? It’s a bit like Desert Island Discs, only more frantic. So, yeah, I ran across a few in my travels in search of the very best music to see out the end of the world by, and I was a little surprised to see that ‘When the Levee Breaks’ featured more than once. This guy has measured out songs for your last 51:35 minutes of life, and for points of predicted population loss. ‘When the Levee Breaks’ comes in at T-minus 35:01 and 84,375,000 people left – the point where those on the coast or below sea level will find that the end has come.

OK, so, yeah, water can kill, but is it really apocalyptic? ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is just about a flood, right? I wanted to put it in because I loved Led Zeppelin, but did it really count? Well, those who live in the UK or who follow people in the UK may have had reason to contemplate such matters this week. Very, very shortly after the dreaded hose-pipe ban was declared the heavens opened and the UK Twittersphere began to mutter about collecting the animals two-by-two. At the time of posting, there are 31 flood warnings in effect.

A still from Waterworld.
I liked this film. So there.

It got me thinking, and I think perhaps floods do come under the umbrella (sorry) of traditional apocalypse after all. I mean, wiping out everything except Noah and his menagerie is pretty extreme. And although it’s really about polar ice-caps melting, you can’t deny that Waterworld has a place in the apocalypse-o-sphere, and focuses similarly on the consequences of excess of water.

And then I began to look into the song, and, as is so often the case, reality can come up with more terrifying things than the imagination. The Led Zeppelin version is a cover. The original was first recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, based on the events of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. That alone is interesting. Sure, rock bands reworked old blues songs all the time in the sixties and seventies, but why did this one have such longevity? What drew Led Zep to it for the close of their fourth album, joining immortal tracks like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in what is widely regarded as their best work?

The answer is that the song achingly depicts a truly catastrophic event at least as worthy of being called a historical apocalypse as the eruption at Pompeii. On Good Friday of that year 15 inches of rain fell in just 18 hours, and the rain just kept on coming. Until June. Levees were built and raised: ‘from two feet to 7.5 feet to as much as 38 feet’ and they could not contain the water. 13 levees broke, flooding 26,000 square miles. Figures vary from 246 deaths to over a thousand, but seem to agree that somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people were displaced. The black community was hit particularly hard, as whites were rescued as a priority and given higher standards of aid. This account describes ‘concentration camps’ where refugees were held in squalid conditions. At Greenville the refugees were put to work to reinforce the levees, and were caught as water ‘more than double the amount of Niagara Falls’ poured through it. Shockingly, in the panic, one man reportedly suggested cutting free an entire boat full of black people.

The Wikipedia article on the flood cites it as a spark-point for the Great Migration of African-Americans away from Southern States like Mississippi towards more northerly cities, although the article on the migration itself suggests a more disparate number of sources. What is certainly true is that there was a large migration of poverty stricken refugees (especially African-Americans) away from the desolate landscape that had once been farmland and towards the cities, and, as the song records, Chicago in particular.

And so. I have a new found respect for this song, and the pain it depicts. Global destruction, in an objective sense? No. But for those people whose lives were lost, or irrevocably ruined, who were cast forth as destitutes upon a world that had little sympathy for them or aid to offer them. ‘Apocalypse’ almost feels like a small, tawdry word.

 – Apocalypse Womble out.

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