Racial Violence and Representation

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie: When the Levee Breaks

American poet Fred Moten (2003) argues that contrary to Marx’s famous claim, the commodity can speak (6). Black slaves are not silent objects merely defined through their subjectification. Rather, slaves are objects that resist; people who are their own subject. A resistance developed from mere sounds, into speech and eventually whole songs (Moten 2003, 22). Songs are more powerful in conveying the horrifies of slavery than whole volumes of written texts are (Douglass 2009, 40). After the abolishment of slavery in the U.S., music remained a way through which black Americans expressed their pain and worries. However, in this short essay, I will argue that despite the powerful potential of this music there arose a new form of objectification, namely black music being appropriated by white capitalists. A way through which the black suffering itself is now objectified by white artists and turned into a for them profitable commodity.

An example of such a song expressing black suffering is the recording of When the Levee Breaks (1929) by the Black American blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Their lyrics are about the great Mississippi flood of 1927 that ruined many homes, farms, and lives in the delta areas. Residents of the delta were mostly black people still living and working on the former slave-driven plantations. After the flood, these people had no house or job which led to many black Americans being coerced back into slavery to rebuild the white-owned farms (Simba 2017). The song has a typical blues AAB scheme through which McCoy’s voice expresses the fear of losing everything when the levee breaks.

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, we’ll have no place to stay
(Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie 1929)

Although the lyrics clearly express black misery and worry, this pain does not necessarily come forward within the music. McCoy sings in quite a plain descriptive voice, while the melody and rhythm are almost cheerful except for the occasional melodramatic blue note.

It could be argued that 40 years later, the American band Led Zeppelin did a better job in expressing the worry and pain of the Great Mississippi flood through their recording of When the Levee Breaks (1971). They made a 7-minute-long recording in which the music was slowed down and dragged making the song more dramatic. The fear of the levee breaking can be heard in the way these lyrics are sung and the central, heavily played, drumline intensifies the feeling of fear and pain even more. However, this pain was historically felt by Black Americans and originally put in a lyric by Black musicians, but now performed by a British white band. By doing this, Led Zeppelin appropriated a black tradition that is not theirs. Secondly, they released this song and so turned the song into a for them profitable commodity. However, they did not properly credit the original artist causing that they did not benefit from this profit. Therefore, I argue that by releasing their song, Led Zeppelin objectified Black suffering and turned their pain, through music, into a profitable commodity. Thus, following Moten, Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie did express their subjectivity through music, but at the same time, this expression itself got objectified by being turned into a white-dominated commodity.

Vera de Wit

Reference List

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie. When the Levee Breaks. 1929. Columbia Records.

Led Zeppelin. “When the Levee Breaks.” Track 8 on Led Zeppelin IV. 1971. Atlantic Recording Corporation.

Moten, Fred. “Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream.” In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 1-24. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Simba, Malik. “The Mississippi River Great Flood of 1927”. Blackpast. September 18, 2017.