Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Led Zeppelin -- "When the Levee Breaks" (1971)

Cryin' won't help you
Prayin' won't do you no good 
When the levee breaks
Mama, you got to move

Seven years ago today, the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina resulted in more than 50 breaches of the drainage and navigational canal levees in the New Orleans area.  About 80% of the city was flooded, with some areas under as much as 15 feet of water.  

The American Society of Civil Engineers refers to the flooding of New Orleans as the worst engineering disaster in American history.  The official death toll was 1464 people.  The city lost 29% of its population between 2000 and 2010; most of that loss was due to the flooding and its aftereffects.

New Orleans, 2005
"When the Levee Breaks," a classic 12-bar blues, was written and recorded by husband-and-wife blues singers Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929.  The inspiration for the song was the "Great Mississippi Flood of 1927," which was the most destructive river flood in American history.

The 1927 flood had its genesis in the heavy rains that fell in the central Mississippi basin in the summer of 1926.  The river eventually broke out of its levee system in 145 different places, flooding 27,000 square miles.  Arkansas was the state that was hardest hit by the flood, with about 14% of its total square area covered by the floodwaters.

Sledge, Mississippi in 1927
On April 15, 1927, 15 inches of rain fell on New Orleans in 18 hours.  In an attempt to minimize damage to the city, a levee located southeast of city was dynamited, which caused much of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes to be flooded.  As things turned out, several major levee breaks upriver from New Orleans drained so much water from the Mississippi that the dynamiting was unnecessary.  (Sorry about that, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes!)

The 1927 flood had far-reaching sociological, political, and cultural effects.  Thousands of displaced African-Americans moved from devastated rural areas in the Mississippi River valley to the big cities up north (especially Chicago).  The flood set the stage for the election of Herbert Hoover to the Presidency in 1928.  (Hoover had headed up relief efforts in his role as Secretary of Commerce.)  William Faulkner wrote a short story ("Old Man") about a prison break that took place during the flood.  And, of course, we have "When the Levee Breaks." 

Led Zeppelin recorded its version of the song in 1970 in a three-story stone residence -- which was originally built in 1795 as a poorhouse -- called Headley Grange.  

Headley Grange
The band wrote and recorded a number of songs at Headley Grange.  "Black Dog" (it and "When the Levee Breaks" are both on Led Zeppelin IV) was named after a black Labrador retriever that hung around Headley Grange while Led Zeppelin was in residence there.  Robert Plant wrote most of the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" at Headley Grange in a single day, but Plant is much more to blame for that than the building is.

"When the Levee Breaks" was heavily processed during the recording and mixing process.  For example, the song was recorded at a faster tempo, but then slowed down.  The group rarely performed the song live -- it was too hard to recreate the sound of the recording.

Led Zeppelin IV cover
Led Zeppelin is notorious for allegedly plagiarizing the music of other recording artists.  (Your G.D. right I said "allegedly" -- the last thing I need at this point in my life is a defamation suit.  To paraphrase Jay-Z, "I got 99 problems, but a defamation suit filed on behalf of Led Zeppelin ain't one.")  

The group modified the original Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie lyrics, but stuck close enough to those lyrics that they felt compelled to credit the two old blues musicians as co-writers on their record.  The lines quoted above appear in both versions.

Here's a cover version by Zepparella, an all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band.  These women are very competent musicians.  Thieir version is a fairly literal translation of the original -- nothing really new -- but there's no need to gild the lily here.  And the point of a tribute band is to sound like the band to which they are paying tribute, right?

I'm not sure why the Zepparella video was shot so you never see the drummer's face.  Here's a picture of the drummer, Clementine.  (Clementine also plays in an all-female AC/DC tribute band called "AC/DShe.")

Zepparella's drummer, Clementine
Here's Alison Krauss's version of the song.  It's radically different and is very interesting, but it doesn't really work for me:

Here's the Led Zeppelin version.  Led Zeppelin is really good, boys and girls.  I liked them a lot back in the seventies, but I have an even higher opinion of them now.  (Their first album is arguably the best rock album of all time.)

You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. I found the Zepparella video by accident a year or two ago, and it's one of my favorites. Foxy ladies playing the heck out of this "older than I am" song. The lead singer blows a wicked harp, the drummer shows her tubs no mercy, the bass player lays down a line you could run trains on, and the guitarist plays with a bottleneck slide. Mercy sakes alive!