John Paul Jones has re-recorded the 1971 Led Zeppelin classic “When The Levee Breaks” with help from 17 musicians from around the globe, including guitarist Derek Trucks, drummer Stephen Perkins, harmonica player Ben Lee, singer Susan Tedeschi, singer Elle Márjá Eira, slide guitarist Keith Secola, and vocalist Mihirangi.
Sebastian Robertson (who also plays guitar on the song) and Mark Johnson produced the video and new version as part of Playing for Change’s Song Around the World initiative. All funds generated from the song will benefit the charity partners of Peace Through Music, including Conservation International, American Rivers, WWF, Reverb and the Playing For Change Foundation.
“When the Levee Breaks” was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie two years after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Led Zeppelin introduced the blues song to a new generation when they covered it on Led Zeppelin IV. When Playing For Change was looking for a follow-up to past videos that featured Robbie Robertson revisiting “The Weight” and Peter Gabriel updating “Biko,” the choice was obvious.
“Looking at ‘When The Levee Breaks’ through the lens of producing a song to raise awareness for key environmental organizations truly felt like a plea for climate justice,” says Sebastian Robertson. “The wailing guitars, harmonica, and vocals all in harmony for Mother Earth.”
“It’s such an epic and powerful song both lyrically and musically,” Johnson adds, “and you feel the conviction and perseverance that the world needs to face these climate challenges together as a human race.
“When The Levee Breaks” wasn’t a regular part of Led Zeppelin’s live repertoire. They only played it at a handful of January 1975 concerts and again at their 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But John Paul Jones revived the song at many of his solo shows in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When Johnson and Robertson began sketching out their vision for the new rendition, they felt Jones would want to contribute.
“It starts with a dream,” says Robertson. “A lifelong obsession with Led Zeppelin and a mindset of manifesting the impossible. Then you reach out to his wonderful manager Adrian Molloy, concoct a plan, and deliver a demo that piques John’s interest. The rest, as they say, is history.”
In an e-mail interview with Rolling Stone, Jones said the decision to get involved was easy. “It’s a great cause, and I really liked what Sebastian and the team are doing,” he says. “The videos are all so well put together, and a joy to watch.”
He also feels that the song resonates today just as much as it ever has. “It seems that little has changed since 1927, or even 2005 with [Hurricane] Katrina,” he says. “It’s still a really powerful track, both musically and lyrically.”
Jones recorded his parts at a greenhouse-type building at the Royal Botanic Gardens in England. “I already knew the part although in a different sequence!” he says. “I also played the main riff an octave lower which made it fit better sonically.”
Once Jones was onboard, recruiting other artists wasn’t a huge challenge. In keeping with one of the central missions of Playing For Change, they wanted artists from every corner of the globe to play on the song. “We started the process with the locomotion of Stephen Perkins on the drums which was an incredible energy to get rolling,” says Robertson. “John Paul Jones hipped us to the remarkable singer, Elle Márjá Eira in Norway. Mihirangi, the Maori powerhouse who takes on some of the vocals was brought to my attention by Playing For Change producer Robin Moxey.”
Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi were interested from the start, but their busy schedule made it difficult for them to find time to contribute. “We really wanted him and Susan to close out the track,” says Robertson. “We thought we were going to have to postpone the production and release but over Thanksgiving weekend, Derek and Susan were so generous, made the time and blew this track out of the water.”
Jones recently had the chance to see the end product. “It’s always interesting to hear what other musicians do with a piece,” he says. “Obviously I had no idea what the other parts would sound like as we each recorded remotely, so it was a real thrill when I finally got to see and hear all of these incredibly talented musicians in the finished video.”