Wednesday, September 7, 2005

When the Levee Breaks: Tribute to New Orleans

These comments originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay

Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Well all last night I sat on the levee and moan
Thinkin' 'bout my baby and my happy home

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
And all these people have no place to stay
These lyrics are as meaningful today as they were over 75 years ago when they were first recorded in 1929. The song "When the Levee Breaks" was performed on record by the husband-and-wife team of "Kansas" Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, recalling the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The couple's dueling guitars was said to mimic the sound of the water.

When Led Zeppelin adapted the song for its fourth album, a new riff was provided by John Paul Jones on bass and the swirling slide guitar of Jimmy Page. These elements were complemented by Robert Plant's psychedelic, drowning harmonica and a mesmerizing drum beat from John Bonham that was made sonically perfect by experimenting with the positioning of microphones around his drum kit.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina this past week saw great devastation after a system of levees broke in New Orleans, La., flooding much of the city, forcefully evicting much of its population, and ultimately rendering much of its housing stock uninhabitable. We may have witnessed the destruction of a city long fabled for its unmistakable culture. It was a location the members of Led Zeppelin always looked forward to visiting.

Whether taking in some zydeco or jazz at a local club or some Cajun-flavored seafood at a down-home restaurant, Led Zeppelin history is rich with stories of the band indulging in all New Orleans had to offer. Members even rented out a house in the French Quarter during the 1973 tour for an extended stay there. It was at the Royal Orleans hotel where John Paul Jones hobnobbed with a local transsexual and friend of the band, a story that was famously exaggerated in the Presence track "Royal Orleans."

The local music scene especially captivated Robert Plant. At a party thrown by Atlantic Records to acknowledge Led Zeppelin's success, Plant in turn honored many of the New Orleans musicians who had been hired to perform that night, including Ernie K. Doe, Professor Longhair, Frankie Ford, The Meters, Snooks Eaglin and Allen Toussaint. Plant has often said it was a shame such artists weren't recognized on a national basis.

Now, the plight of this city has become internationally known. To find out what you can do to aid the relief effort, visit or call toll-free: 1-800-HELP-NOW.

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