When the Levee Breaks

On Led Zeppelin IV (or Untitled, The Runes Album, Zoso or whatever you want to call it), Led Zeppelin listed Memphis Minnie along with the four band members on the songwriting credits for “When the Levee Breaks”. In this case, Led Zeppelin fairly gives credit where credit is due in the creation of this monumental masterpiece. The lyrics follow Memphis Minnie’s original “When the Levee Breaks” but this is not a straightforward cover of that song. Led Zeppelin completely reworked the music into a heavy psychedelic track that bears only a distant relationship to the original. As performed by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, “When the Levee Breaks” is a country blues number with spare but deft instrumentation. Kansas Joe sings and accompanies himself on guitar, while Memphis Minnie plays lead guitar with a “Spanish” tuning, according to Steve Calt in the liner notes for the Yazoo compilation Roots Of Rock (1991).

Memphis Minnie Led Zeppelin
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 moaned
Thinkin' 'bout my baby and my happy home

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?
I ain't got nobody to tell my troubles to

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
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to lose

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'm goin' back to my used to be

It's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan
Gonna leave my baby, and my happy home
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
It's 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 go no work to do
If you don't know about Chicago

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
Thinkin' about me baby and my happy home

Going, going to Chicago
Going to Chicago
Sorry but I can't take you
Going down
Going down now

Unlike the finesse of Memphis Minnie’s guitar work, Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks” is heavy to say the least, driven by John Bonham’s reverb-drenched drumming. According to Chris Welch, “When the Levee Breaks” was the first track that John Bonham got a drum sound he was satisfied with. He achieved this effect by pulling his drumset into the hallway of Headley Grange studio, using room microphones suspended at various distances and running the sound through a guitar amp. The rest of the instrumentation is distinctive and Led Zeppelin adds riffs and a bridge that are original. Though Robert Plant stayed close to Memphis Minnie’s lyrics, he added words of their own, particularly at the conclusion of the song when he sings of going to Chicago. It’s interesting to note that the Memphis Minnie’s version of “When the Levee Breaks” does not mention Chicago. Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe recorded “When the Levee Breaks” in 1928, at a time when many African Americans were moving out of the rural South to the industrial centers of the North. The rail lines connecting the Mississippi Delta region to Chicago and the availability of industrial jobs made that city one of the main destinations of this mass migration. Ironic, then, that Robert Plant adds this pertinent reference to the song. As with “Since I’ve Been Loving You“, however, a couple of Robert Plant’s deviations from his source of inspiration result in some awkward turns of phrase (wouldn’t a mountain man be among those least affected by flooding, for example?).

In When the Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV, Andy Fyfe credits “When the Levee Breaks,” specifically John Bonham’s opening drum pattern, with helping give rise to sampling in hip hop. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Jimmy Page made it clear he has misgivings about sampling.

In a creative sense, it’s fantastic. Even if you don’t play an instrument, you’re writing new things. These guys come up with some amazing work, in the electronics and the mixing. I find it really fun to listen to. As far as the business side of it, however, the issue of sampling is thorny. The problem is people not getting paid for performances, Across the board, they are being pirated. Their music gets played, and they don’t get paid. I have a problem with that. I really do.

Robert Plant took a different perspective, acknowledging the irony that seems, well, obvious. “We were flabbergasted and impressed when people started using “When the Levee Breaks”. When Jimmy and I talked about it we figured nothing was sacred, as we’d been nicking old blues stuff since the beginning of time.”

The historical origins of “When the Levee Breaks” are interesting. Memphis Minnie’s original song is based on the Great Flood of 1927, which still ranks as the most destructive river flood in U.S. history.

A number of country blues songs were recorded in the aftermath of the flood and a wide variety of artists have continued to draw inspiration from this event through the years. One recent release, Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 by Royal Palace at Memphis, is devoted entirely to the event. The 1927 flood is the subject of the movie The Great Flood directed by Bill Morrison and music by Bill Frisell released last year.

Some recent songs have drawn connections between the 1927 flood and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005. In both cases levees collapsed with devastating consequences. WNYC listed several songs about the 1927 flood, and among them, of course, is Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” WYNC added that Led Zeppelin’s track took on a new life following Katrina, with Air America, among others, using it as a sort of theme song for their coverage of events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Spike Lee’s 2006 movie When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts tells the story of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction from the perspective of those who lived through the disaster. The appalling performance of those in authority and their disregard for the well being of the poorest in New Orleans amplified this tragedy.

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