When the Levee Breaks

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"When the Levee Breaks"
Single by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie
B-side "That Will Be Alright"
Released 1929 (1929)
Format 10" 78 rpm record
Recorded June 18, 1929
Genre Country blues
Length 3:11
Label Columbia (14439D)
Writer(s) Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie aka Minnie Lawlers
Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie singles chronology
"When the Levee Breaks"
(1929)
"Goin' Back to Texas"/ Frisco Town"
(1929)

"When the Levee Breaks" is a blues song written and first recorded by husband and wife Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The song is in reaction to the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

It was re-worked by English rock group Led Zeppelin as the last song on their fourth album, released in 1971. The lyrics in Led Zeppelin's version, credited to Memphis Minnie and the individual members of Led Zeppelin,[1] were partially based on the original recording. Many other artists have also recorded versions of the song or played it live.

Original song[edit]

"When the Levee Breaks" was originally recorded by the blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. In the first half of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood ravaged the state of Mississippi and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and devastated the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Many people were forced to flee to the cities of the Midwest in search of work, contributing to the "Great Migration" of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. During the flood and the years after it subsided, it became the subject of numerous Delta blues songs, including "When the Levee Breaks", hence the lyrics, "I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away" and "I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home". The song focused mainly on when more than 13,000 residents in and near Greenville, Mississippi evacuated to a nearby, unaffected levee for its shelter at high ground. The tumult that would have been caused if this and other levees had broken was the song's underlying theme.[2][3]

Led Zeppelin rendition[edit]

"When the Levee Breaks"
Song by Led Zeppelin from the album Led Zeppelin IV
Released November 8, 1971
Recorded December 1970 – March 1971
Genre Hard rock, blues rock, urban blues
Length 7:08
Label Atlantic
Writer Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham/Memphis Minnie
Producer Jimmy Page
Led Zeppelin IV track listing
"Going to California"
(7)
"When the Levee Breaks"
(8)

Led Zeppelin recorded a version of the song in December 1970 at Headley Grange, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. The song had earlier been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.[4]

According to Led Zeppelin guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, the song's structure "was a riff that I'd been working on, but Bonzo's drum sound really makes a difference on that point."[5] The famous drum performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns by placing Bonham and a new Ludwig drumkit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, and recording it using two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones at the top, giving the distinctive resonant but slightly muffled sound.[6][7] Page later explained:

We were playing in one room in a house with a recording truck, and a drum kit was duly set up in the main hallway, which is a three storey hall with a staircase going up on the inside of it. And when John Bonham went out to play the kit in the hall, I went "Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do this!" Curiously enough, that's just a stereo mic that's up the stairs on the second floor of this building, and that was his natural balance.[8]

Back in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, Johns compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through guitarist Page's Binson echo unit.[4] The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory.[4]

Page recorded Plant's harmonica part using the backward echo technique, putting the echo ahead of the sound when mixing, creating a distinct effect.[4]

"When the Levee Breaks" was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the "sludgy" sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. Because this song was heavily produced in the studio, it was difficult to recreate live; the band only played it a few times in the early stages of their 1975 U.S. Tour, before dropping it for good. However, the song was revived for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1995.[4]

"When the Levee Breaks" was the only song on the album that was not re-mixed after a supposedly disastrous mixing job in the U.S. (the rest of the tracks were mixed again in England). The mixing done on this song was kept in its original form.

In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page elaborated upon the effects at the end of the song:

Interviewer: How was the swirly effect at the end of "When the Levee Breaks" achieved? I always imagine you sitting there with a joystick...

Page: It's sort of like that, isn't it? It's interesting: On "Levee Breaks" you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.[9]

In another interview, Page commented:

"When the Levee Breaks" is probably the most subtle thing on [the album] as far as production goes, because each twelve bars has something new about it, though at first it might not be apparent. There's a lot of different effects on there that, at the time, had never been used before. Phased vocals, a backwards echoed harmonica solo.[5]

The opening drum riff from the Led Zeppelin recording, played by drummer John Bonham, has been repeatedly sampled in hip hop and other music since the 1980s, as a result of its distinctly "heavy" sound.[10] Numerous other artists have also recorded Led Zeppelin's rendition. See List of cover versions of Led Zeppelin songs, "When the Levee Breaks" for details.

Critical reception[edit]

Music critic Robert Christgau cited Led Zeppelin's rendition of "When the Levee Breaks" as their fourth album's greatest achievement. He argued that, because it plays like an authentic blues song and "has the grandeur of a symphonic crescendo", their rendition both transcends and dignifies "the quasi-parodic overstatement and oddly cerebral mood of" their past blues songs.[11] Mick Wall said that Led Zeppelin revised the original song as a "hypnotic, blues rock mantra."[12] Q magazine wrote that the album's "big room ambience [is] still best described by 'When the Levee Breaks'".[13] Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing for AllMusic, said that "When the Levee Breaks" was the only song on their fourth album on-par with "Stairway to Heaven" and called it "an apocalyptic slice of urban blues ... as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got, and its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them."[14] In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Greg Kot said that the song showed the band's "hard-rock blues" at their most "momentous".[15]

References[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ "When the Levee Breaks". Allmusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved May 29, 2011. 
  2. ^ Cheseborough, Steve (1 May 2004). Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 132–133. ISBN 1-57806-650-6. 
  3. ^ Garon, Paul (1 April 1992). Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80460-3. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  5. ^ a b Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  6. ^ Welch, Chris (1 October 1998). Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused – The Stories Behind Every Song. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 70, 72. ISBN 1-56025-188-3. 
  7. ^ Lewis, Dave (1 September 2004). Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music. Omnibus Press. p. 33. ISBN 1-84449-141-2. 
  8. ^ National Public Radio, Guitar Legend Jimmy Page, June 2, 2003.
  9. ^ Cavanaugh, David. "Jimmy Page, 'Mission Accomplished.'" Uncut Magazine. Take 132 (May 2008): 49-50.
  10. ^ "Artist Samples beginning with the letter L". The-Breaks.com. Retrieved 2006-07-30. 
  11. ^ Christgau, Robert (October 13, 1981). Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. p. 222. ISBN 0899190251. 
  12. ^ Wall 2008, pp. 246.
  13. ^ "Review: Led Zeppelin IV". Q (London): 141. October 1994. 
  14. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas (8 November 1971). "Allmusic Review". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  15. ^ Kot, Greg et al. (2004). Brackett, Nathan; Hoard, Christian, eds. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th ed.). Simon & Schuster. p. 479. ISBN 0-7432-0169-8. 
Bibliography