A levee is an embankment along a river that resists the overflow of the stream. Derived in the eighteenth century from the French levée, meaning “act of raising,” the word refers in modern times especially to the elevated ground along the Mississippi and its tributaries. Natural levees are built up year after year by the deposit of sandy soil on the banks of the flooding river. As the floodwaters rise over the banks, no longer held by the channel, the velocity of the current drops, along with the water’s ability to hold sediment. Coarser materials fall out first, and finer silt and clay are carried into the back swamp areas of the floodplain, where they drop out of suspension as the water slows even more. The levees themselves are made of sand and coarser sediments. Man-made levees are constructed to control flooding and protect populated areas along the river. Extensive levees have been built along the Mississippi system. The most famous use of the word is perhaps in the Don McLean song celebrating rock and roll and lamenting the death of Buddy Holly: “Drove my Chevy to the levee/but the levee was dry.”

Robert Morgan