I grew up listening to blues.
Like most any white kid in the suburbs of the 70s and 80s, I listened to hard rock. As I got older, I came to understand there was some kind of relationship between the blaring guitars and thundering drums making their way into my ears and the old blues artists of what then seemed to me like ancient times. In college, I learned a bit more about it from a History of Rock&Roll class, and from a friend with a good stash of old blues albums, but it wasn’t until I started buying those albums myself that I realized just how much my favorite bands owed to the old blues artists. In time, I came to see just how much of what I loved about Rock&Roll was already there in blues.
Needless to say, this meant I had a whole new range of music to explore.
One of my favorite songs, then and now, would have to be Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks.
I’m sorry, I meant to say that one of my favorite songs has always been the Led Zeppelin version of When the Levee Breaks.
Zeppelin absolutely nailed this recording, but listening to four British guys play the song, I always had the sense that the lyrics didn’t quite fit. Sure, it was Robert Plant’s vocals on the albums, but it wasn’t his voice (in the literary sense) that animated the story. No. The voice that shaped the lyrics belonged to Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, the original artists to record the song. Realizing this, puts the tune in a whole new perspective. Minnie and Joe were singing about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, an event far closer to their own lives than those of the Mighty Zep. Zeppelin may have carried their story forward a bit, but not without taking a few ghosts along with it.
I still love the Zeppelin version, but I feel just a little better knowing where it came from. No. I don’t always need that to enjoy a song, but in this case, the story itself keeps pointing back to its beginnings. The song keeps alluding to an origin that doesn’t sit well in the mega-hit from the early seventies. For me at least, the song is a little more interesting when you can grasp the traces of dialogue within it, when you can hear at least a trace of Minnie’s voice in that of Robert Plant.
Lately, my favorite version of the song comes from Buckwheat Zydeco. I didn’t expect that. Really, When I first hit play on this version, I fully expected to mumble ‘that’s interesting’ and switch half-way through the tune to something else (something louder and meaner). But no! He frickin kills it! Zydeco seems to keep a lot of the Zeppelin version in his own approach to the song, but of course he adds something new to the mix, something rather cool. Hearing Zydeco’s own vocals onto the blaring guitars and thundering drums makes for an interesting twist in the story. Without erasing the classic rock influence, Zydeco manages to bring the song back closer to its original home. It all gets a little more interesting when this version of the song turns out to be a nod to the hardships brought on by Hurricane Katrina. You can hear a lot of history in this recording, both in the lyrics and the in layers of musical style.
Mostly, it just rocks.