Video Classics: “When the Levee Breaks” – Led Zeppelin

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It's Not a Popular Song at This Home (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

It’s Not a Popular Song at This Home (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Who knew at least one famous rock song had its origins all the way back in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927? Based on a blues tune by [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Kansas Joe McCoy[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Memphis Minnie[/lastfm] from 1929, [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Led Zeppelin[/lastfm]’s “When the Levee Breaks” is just that song. Here, the band performs the song with [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Neil Young[/lastfm].

Led Zeppelin recorded its 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.

The Led Zeppelin version features a distinctive pounding drum beat by John Bonham, driving guitars and a wailing harmonica, all presumably meant to symbolize the relentless storm that threatens to break the levee, backing a powerful vocal performance by vocalist Robert Plant. The vocals were processed differently on each verse, sometimes with phasing added. Plant had the original McCoy and Minnie recording in his personal collection. He removed and rearranged lines and line parts from the original song and added new lyrical parts (again, the lyrics focused on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927), and combined it with a revamped melody.

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