When The Levee Breaks, Listening to the progressions...
© 2007 Robert D. Skeels. Reproduced with permission.
A big Led Zeppelin fan, I've built up a fair sized collection of their blues influences. Although Led Zeppelin is often accused of being too derivative, anyone familiar with the original blues works knows better. Case in point -- "When the Levee Breaks." I am fortunate to have three versions of this blues classic, and love listening to them in chronological order.
Memphis Minnie's brilliant original "When The Levee Breaks": her amazing guitar work creates a texture reminiscent of flood waters meandering along. Above the guitars, Joe McCoy's gravely voice belts out what is a familiar calamity to working class people, and particularly working class blacks in the South. The lyrics paint the loss of everything on the account of flooding. Sadly the same racist system that doomed working class flood victims then hasn't changed -- Katrina presents a grim reminder of race, gender, and class issues.
Led Zeppelin's version of the song is essentially unrecognizable from Memphis Minnie's original. While a handful of the lyrics survived in their versions, this is hardly a cover song. Indeed, Bonham's innovative beat forming the backbone of the song, and Page's unequaled slide guitar work in the song make it one of Led Zeppelin's all time best works, especially in terms of virtuosity. There are points in the song when the notes Page plays with his slide seem to soar to the very heavens themselves. Between the musicianship and Plant's voice capturing the very essence of the blues sorrow from the lyrics, I occasionally experience that chill I feel whenever I feel the connection between creations of art and the idea of the divine itself.
In fact, listening to the original and the Led Zeppelin version sequentially gives lie to the notion that Zeppelin was wholly derivative, or worse, that they stole from bluesmen. If anything, Led Zeppelin's interpretations of these songs transcends the songs to the extent that they become their own originals. What's more, their work inspired many people to investigate and purchase the originals. I only wish that I had some live versions of this Zeppelin classic.
The third version of "When the Levee Breaks" in my collection is a live cover by prodigy Jeff Buckley. Buckley always had an uncanny ability to do Led Zeppelin songs in a way that were uniquely his own, but paying homage simultaneously. Buckley's voice, peerless in its own right, would always capture Plant's nuances, without sounding like Plant at all. Likewise, his guitar playing embodied Page, all the while being improvisational and fresh. Another Buckley cover, "Night Flight," is genius in that it is just him playing and signing unaccompanied.