“When The Levee Breaks” – Led Zeppelin
This morning I was reading about a feasibility study about putting a giant sea wall around the New York harbor, and the picture at the top of the page was a massive wave hitting the Statue of Liberty. The grandeur of the photo matched with the subject matter of the article brought this song to mind, and I’ve had it stuck in my head all day.
The original “When the Levee Breaks” was 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.
Led Zeppelin’s version slightly altered the lyrics, but they also used some very, very revolutionary techniques in recording the instruments.
For starters, you’ll notice that the harmonica has a strange, almost ominous sound to it. That’s because they used a reverse-echo, in which the echo effect is placed ahead of the sound. Weird.
In addition, the drums were recorded in a hallway. What the hell you might say, and you’d be justified.
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 mike that’s up the stairs on the second floor of this building, and that was his natural balance.
On top of all this, the whole song was recorded at a completely different tempo and then slowed down, which creates the slushy, washed out sound. However, this made the song essentially impossible to properly recreate live and the song was only played a few times live.
Led Zeppelin is an incredible band as we all know, and knowing these little stories just makes them all the better. Enjoy this song, and stay safe.