That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
If Led Zeppelin’s 1971 track “When the Levee Breaks” is widely considered an original, it’s because the sound that Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham make on that record bears very little relation to its source material: a jauntily played acoustic blues number from 1929. It emanates instead from deep in the heart of the mightiest of English rock bands. It is huge, rumbling, and apocalyptic. And it is totally at one with the song’s all-too-familiar theme of an individual at the mercy of forces way beyond his control.
Not too many people are even aware of the original. It’s not a blues standard like “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Crossroads,” or “Little Red Rooster,” all of which had been revived during the British blues boom of the ’60s. It wasn’t even that popular in the year it was released on 78rpm phonograph, back when Bessie Smith and Charley Patton were having “race record” hits with “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and “High Water Everywhere,” respectively. Nope, it was a little-known track by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie that singer Robert Plant put forward to record for the band’s fourth (untitled) album in 1970. It had one thing in common with Patton’s song, however, in that it evoked the black experience of being displaced by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Its first-person narrator told of having “no place to stay,” of a “mean old levee” making him “weep and moan,” and of being forced to “leave my baby and my happy home.”
When guitarist and producer Jimmy Page eventually saw sense in reinterpreting the song, he and the band changed pretty much everything that Kansas Joe had written, sung, and played rhythm guitar on, and to which Memphis Minnie had added her renowned finger-picking guitar embellishments and, possibly, lyrics. John Bonham provided the catalyst in the form of a thunderous drum sound, which compelled the group to abandon Kansas Joe’s 12-bar structure and play the whole track in one chord. Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones laid down a ferocious groove, over which Page added squalling slide-guitar riffs that contributed to a sense of impending doom.
Plant clearly wasn’t going to replicate Kansas Joe’s plain singing style as his contribution, choosing instead to howl and moan his way through the seven-minute barrage of blues then under construction. He conveyed remarkable empathy for the song’s narrator, in fact, which was no mean feat when you consider that he was a rich, white, stadium-striding rock star from Halesowen in the West Midlands of England (not a place known for its levees). He streamlined the verses, too, while adding new lines to a bridge that the band introduced to the track for extra bluster. Plant likely lifted these from another old blues record in his collection, but certainly made them fit the bill by offering a snapshot of how the flood caused an exodus of black agricultural workers out of Mississippi, in an apparently futile search for employment elsewhere. “If you’re going down south / They got no work to do,” he roared, “If you’re going north to Chicago…”
With manifold changes made in the recording process, Page further distanced the Led Zeppelin version of the song from the blues original by swamping it with disorienting production effects. He added compression and echo to Bonham’s backbeats, for instance, even after engineer Andy Johns had famously recorded the drummer pounding these out in the reverberating stairwell of a three-story stone building: Headley Grange in Hampshire. He also slowed down certain sections and applied backwards echo to Plant’s bluesy harmonica, blending this with phasing and flanging. He made it extremely difficult for the band to recreate the sound live, in other words, by focusing more on encapsulating the immense and surging unpredictability of a great flood.
With all that Page and his band mates contributed, it’s little wonder that they achieved the writing credit on the finished product as “Jimmy Page/Robert Plant/John Paul Jones/John Bonham/Memphis Minnie,” to make the track officially their own (almost). By co-crediting Memphis Minnie simply to avoid libel action, furthermore, the group muddied the exact origin of the song, while reinforcing the reputation of Kansas Joe as a mere sideman. They then watched as their version vastly overshadowed the original in accord with its parent album reaching #1 in the UK Albums Chart and #2 on the US Billboard 200, on the way to becoming by far their biggest record. Plus, by putting “Levee” at the very end of a tracklist of entirely self-written numbers, including an epic, folky thing called “Stairway to Heaven,” they made it easy for listeners to overlook the tagged-on moniker, “Memphis Minnie.”
Whether clued up or not on that fifth name, a bunch of notable artists went on to cover Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” with the effect of giving it the added mystique of an original. Louisiana bluesman John Campbell, for instance, growled his way through the song in 1993, having found obvious inspiration in Page’s distinctive bottleneck-slide action. Alt-rocker Kristin Hersh similarly adopted the hypnotic groove invented by Led Zeppelin for her brooding acoustic rendition of 1994. Jeff Buckley, meanwhile, captured the whole Zeppelin vibe on a live performance of the song from his peak 1995 period, notably by matching Plant’s acrobatic vocals, and letting rip on the slide guitar. Thereafter, glam-metal band Great White replicated Page’s arrangement of the track on their Great Zeppelin tribute album of 1998, and even supergroup A Perfect Circle based their radical and trippy reinterpretation of 2004 on that familiar doomy mantra of 1971.
There’s no doubt, from all this, that the Led Zeppelin version of “When the Levee Breaks” has become the standard. The song title itself is synonymous with the band, so much so that English folk singer Beverley Martyn was compelled to name her desolate, rootsy recording of 2014 simply “Levee Breaks.” She clearly didn’t want folks to connect it to Bonham and the boys, as she drew more on the Kansas Joe original. And certainly, the Led Zeppelin version – one of the band’s signature tunes – has a whole heap of connotations that certain artists want to steer clear of. It’s all about obsessive fans endlessly debating exactly how “Bonzo” got that drum sound, how Page got that open F tuning on his turnaround guitar riffs, and if, where and when, and at precisely what time, the band performed the song live. It’s also about people applying the song to a string of other environmental disasters, notably Hurricane Katrina, and, metaphorically, to individuals who have a lot of problems building up and are near breaking point. It’s also commonly applied to the political damage currently being wrought by President Trump, in a country where it just “keeps on raining.”
It’s not easy to conceive of “When the Levee Breaks” as having begun life as a simple song performed by two itinerant blues players from the 1920s, on the specific subject of the Great Mississippi Flood. But it did.