“When the levee breaks you’ll have no place to stay…”. These words sung by Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin are no less relevant today than when they were first recorded. “When The Levee Breaks” was a song originally released in 1929 by the legendary Delta blues husband & wife duo, Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie as a response to the disaster of The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. This disaster left thousands of people homeless and forced many to migrate to other areas of the United States in search of work and a new start.
Robert Plant happened to have this song in his personal collection. He found it one day and decided that it should be brought back to life. He removed and rearranged lines and line parts from the original song and added new lyrics while also combining it with a new melody. One thing that always struck me about the original version of the song (which is included below) is that it is upbeat and sounds a little too cheerful based on the subject matter. That’s also what I like about the original version, though. I think that it shows they were remaining optimistic in spite of being fearful. If you were not paying attention to the lyrics, you may think that the song was about something wonderful that had happened. Led Zeppelin’s version is darker and while I appreciate the tone of the original,I believe that Led Zeppelin’s version is more appropriate for the subject matter at hand.
The Led Zeppelin recording for this song, which took place in December 1970, features a pounding drum beat by their drummer, John Bonham, which was recorded in a three story stairwell. Bonham was placed at the bottom of the stairwell with his drums while two microphones were placed at the top, giving a resonant but slightly muffled sound. The driving guitars and the harmonica wailing are said to symbolize the storm that threatens to break the levee. All of this backed by the vocals of Robert Plant is a recipe for a hit.
While the original version of the song strictly dealt with The Great Mississippi Flood of ’27, Plant expanded his version to also hit on the poor being disenfranchised by adding lyrics such as, “If you’re goin’ down south / they got no work to do / if you don’t know ’bout Chicago..”. So the song can now be taken in two different ways: Literally – the song is about a storm and the fear that the levee will break. Figuratively – the poor themselves become the raging storm restrained by oppressive government institutions (the levee).
However you decide to take the song, it remains as relevant in the 21st century as it did when it was first recorded. With disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the like, the song has been one that many can relate to on a personal level to this day. Though the song has been covered by many artists such as Bob Dylan, Kid Rock, Tori Amos, Kristin Hersch, and A Perfect Circle, I will always remain partial to the Led Zeppelin version of the song, which I believe captures the true essence of the fear and suffering that its original version was meant to convey.