Led Zeppelin’s fourth album seems to me, a child of the ‘80s, to have always existed. Was there ever a time before my knowing of “When the Levee Breaks”? Did I ever first hear “The Battle of Evermore” or allow “Going to California” to carry me off? Memory is a funny thing, but it’s almost as if I was born pre-programmed with the songs in my DNA.
Like all great music, the album incarnates in cavity and flesh, a divine organization. Rippling through a microcosm of space, it commands all surrounding matter to worship the same sound, to resonate in singular communion. How does music do what it does to us? Even though we can outline the geometry of the element, name it wave or identify its pitch, when we hear it in exemplary forms, we are still seduced by its ineffable mystery deliciously, willingly astray.
Led Zeppelin IV has glamoured its audiences in many ways since its inception. When released, it bore no title, and the cover was absent the band’s already famous name. As such, it is variously called Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, The Fourth Album, Zoso, Four Symbols, and Runes—the last three in relation to four symbols that mark the album’s interior in place of a proper title. This, however, is not the mystery of Runes—it is the mystique: a superficial but compelling exterior that may or may not have an actual mystery inside.
That kind of mystique—and guitarist Jimmy Page’s love for the occult and all things Aleister Crowley—has led to some interesting devil-worshipping theories about the band, notably a six-hundred page doorstop called, I kid you not, Fallen Angel, which promises to lay bear the devilish sutures of Zeppelin’s music. And here I thought Led Zeppelin IV was just a kickass rock album with geeky allusions to The Lord of the Rings and a frontman who conveniently sings in my vocal range. The true exigency for Fallen Angel was likely music’s power to enrapture—a power that binds together demon and deity worship music alike. Music is a powerful invocation: it can circumvent our linear, logical minds, and nearly rend our subtle bodies from our manifested, earthly selves. So likely this: feeling himself thus overcome, the author of the aforementioned tome came up against the boundary of his own unknowing. Consumed with the fear, he sought to conquer the mystery through naming. He chose a name available at the fingertips: “devil.” I see different magic.
Released in 1971, the album opens with “Black Dog,” in which the iconic riff and Robert Plant’s vocals circle around each other like a strange attractor. In chaos theory, such a system “attracts” independently moving points into the same complex orbit. The points are like cars racing chaotically on a winding, invisible track—some taking wide or sharp turns, some looping several times around one circle of a figure eight. Even when they begin at almost identical “starting lines,” the points will diverge quickly onto different routes—and yet, absent any disturbance, they never leave the track. The virtuosity of the song is an even stranger dynamical system: John Paul Jones on bass and Page on guitar are in one time signature while John Bonham on drums and Plant’s vocals are in another. The song feels like it may spin into chaos at any moment. Just when it’s definitely going to crash and burn, the band keeps going, and by sheer tenacity they hold the thing together. It’s exciting to hear, it baffles and amuses. And it rocks hard.
The song segues into an homage to—or appropriation of—a former decade of black American rock and roll stars: “It’s been a long time since the book of love,” sings Plant, in allusion to the Monotones’ big hit from 1957. “I can’t count the tears of a life with no love,” he continues, “carry me back, carry me back / carry me back, baby, where I come from.” The band wrote it when, failing to conquer the album’s other virtuosic track (“Four Sticks”), Bonham launched into the drumline from Little Richard’s “Keep A-Knockin’” (also 1957) and Page chimed in with a seriously Chuck Berry-like riff (Hoskyns). Fifteen minutes later, the song was finished. “Rock and Roll” is a celebration. And it rocks—hard. Although there is no mystery in the song, it possesses the powerful magic of nostalgia. Nostalgia makes a choir of past and present. When we hear that harmony, we feel a sense of being home, tinged with our painful sensing of the impenetrable edges of the barrier of time.
Through controlled chaos and then nostalgia, the album’s opening songs are persuasive. They render the flesh willing. But so far, this is earthly magic. No demons and no gods have come to play here.
“The Battle of Evermore” is the first song I feel deeply seduced by on Zoso. It is a Celtic ballad that references primarily Tolkienian and minorly Arthurian legend. It is not mysterious—we haven’t yet arrived to a true mystery on the album. “Evermore” also doesn’t have mystique. But it is mystical—that is, through it, if we allow, we can enter a spiritual, trancelike ecstasy. There are no drums on the track. The song bewitches through Page’s rhythmic mandolin in a process known as entrainment.
There are three rhythmic centers of the human body: the lungs, the heart, and the brain. Each one pulses and whirs and, deliciously, they influence one another. So when “Evermore” hyper-attunes our brainwaves—entrains them into its rhythm—that altered rhythm can waterfall into willing breath and blood. The human body craves synchrony, that magic trick of spacetime. Any regular rhythm of sound or sight or vibration will sweep us right along with it, into its parallel reality. Like a shadow, this transcendent state needs a physical force to materialize it, and it cannot be untethered from the body to which it belongs.
Similarly, “Going to California,” which features Jones on mandolin and is also absent the drums, is a poetic folksong, almost a lullaby—that genre meant to soothe a body through entrainment into sleep. It just beats “Misty Mountain Hop” as the most sincere track on the album.“Made up my mind to make a new start,” sings Plant. “Going to California with an aching in my heart.”
The song tells of a hero’s journey. “When the Levee Breaks,” on the other hand, tells of an exodus.
The song was written by Kansas Joe McCoy and the original stars himself and influential blueswoman Memphis Minnie. It’s about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 that caused an estimated half a million African Americans to lose their homes (Coyle). Minnie, who was around 30 at the time of the flood, experienced it first-hand. She was living with her sister-in-law who said:
We were scared to death when it broke, 1927. The levee broke and the water come over. Me and my two little children left and went to Walls, up on the hill there. “Kid” [a childhood nickname for Minnie] and them, they come on to town. When the water went down, we went back. (Garon)
Paul and Beth Garon call the song “an announcement of a new beginning, even in its sadness,” perhaps in part because the subject matter of the song is discordant with the sound of McCoy’s rhythm guitar in cheerful syncopation and Minnie’s bright finger picking.
Zeppelin’s cover is not a mere reproduction. The time signatures and style differ greatly. The cover has a digital witchiness compliments of distorted, wailing vocals and wobbling guitar that blur the boundaries of signal and noise; and engineering by “magus” Jimmy Page (Davis), who edited the track in many ways, notably so that the harmonica’s echo comes before the sound instead of after. McCoy’s lyrics are direct, his vocals deadpan. By comparison, Plant’s vocals swell emotionally. Pronouns on Zeppelin’s version have unclear referents and the persona is slippery. At times, the implied speaker seems to be the same as the one in McCoy’s version. But at other times, the speaker seems of a different time period. That is to say, its memory differs from the original.
The historic memory is this: Plantation owners in Mississippi refused to let African American sharecroppers flee the 1927 flood, fearing that the labor force they exploited would not return. An approximately eleven-mile “refugee camp” (more accurately termed “slave camp”) was set up on top of the levee itself—river on one side, flood on the other (Barry), where the workers were paid seventy-five cents a day to fill and stack sandbags (Ambrose). Sixty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the National Guard carried men who tried to flee back to the levee at gunpoint. In 1942, fifteen years after the flood, planters were still holding workers hostage, paying the police to patrol rail depots and prevent African Americans from getting on trains to Chicago (Ambrose). While some black sharecroppers were able to escape North in pursuit of work that paid vastly higher wages at the time of the flood, for many, the grip of the plantation owners didn’t relax until 1945, one year after the first cotton harvesting machine came to the area (Coyle).
“Going to Chicago,” sings Plant, just after the second time the song makes a major tonal shift from a moody drudgery electrified by harmonica to a celebratory reprieve. The lyric is notably missing from Kansas Joe McCoy’s original.
Music is a communal act. It builds on what comes before. Repeating really exceptional musical ideas is what makes the whole thing work. But we also cannot divorce music from structures of power that wield violence in the world. How concerned were the band members of Led Zeppelin with the violence to African Americans exacerbated by the 1927 flood? I wish I knew. We do know that the band is notorious for non-attribution (see Hann, for example), and I don’t think the fact that they transformed the work is any excuse. They attributed Minnie for “Levee” (though not McCoy, which feels to me like a willful act of favoritism).
As for the regenesis of “Levee,” it’s maybe the best track on The Fourth Album. It bears the memory. It’s haunted in a way the original was not. I don’t find it mysterious. But I do find it miraculous.
So here we have the so-called “mystery”—strange attractors and nostalgia and entrainment and historic memory and distortion. Through the veil of their mystique, the members of the band are just four talented humans following what compels them.
Still, it would be untruthful to say no mystery remains. We see the how but can only caress the exterior of the impenetrable membrane of why the music does what it does to us. Knowledge doesn’t always supersede mystery. The two are not mutually exclusive; they can exist at the same time.
In hubris or out of fear, we feel the mystery and call it devil or god because of the emotion it evokes. But try as we might, the veil over our uncertainty will never be broken for us. We can seek the waves of the mystery, yet there is no river we can ford to the other side of our unknowing. We can purchase no mode of transportation, figurative or real, to arrive there. Anyone who claims to have named the mystery has failed to understand this. We can sense the mystery, yes; we can feel it in our veins and even allow it to home inside our chests, but still the mystery remains a mystery. We can taste the mystery, dance inside of it, and let it vibrate along the deep fjords of our vagus nerve, but the mystery remains the same. Were we to die into afterlife or be raptured into heavens, still, as discrete beings, the mystery would remain. From the mystery, there is only one means of escape: to be erased into the continuous and infinite seeing of the divine. The only way to gain the mystery is to lose ourselves.
—April Gray Wilder
Ambrose, Stephen. “Man vs. Nature: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” National Geographic, 2001.
Barry, John. Interviewed by Linda Wertheimer. NPR, 3 Sept. 2005.
Coyle, Laura. “The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.
Davis, Erik. Led Zeppelin IV (33 1/3 series). Bloomsbury, 2005.
Garon, Paul and Beth Garon. Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues. City Lights Books, 2014.
Hann, Michael. “Yes, Led Zeppelin took from other people’s records—but then they transformed them.” The Guardian, 2016.
Hoskyns, Barry. Led Zeppelin IV: Rock of Ages. Rodale Books, 2006.