Sunday, August 30, 2020

You make me dizzy, Miss Lizzie

 I was driving around on Saturday, and found myself listening to arguably the best song from Led Zeppelin's fourth album.

No, not that one.

This one. 

In some respects, "When the Levee Breaks" hearkens back to the songs that first made Led Zeppelin famous, including blues wailing, blues playing, and tricky recording techniques. Unlike "Stairway to Heaven," which is clearly rooted in the British Isles, "When the Levee Breaks" is painfully American. 

Which raises the question - how could these denizens of London studios and Birmingham (UK, not AL) pubs pull off this American tune? (No, not that one.)

It turns out that despite the differences in tradition, there are enough commonalities in the British and American experiences that expressions in one culture can transfer to the other culture. 

By Queensland State Archives -, CC BY 3.0 au,

Take fox hunting. If there's anything that on the surface appears peculiarly British, it is fox hunting. So when an English band named Manfred Mann recorded and released "Fox on the Run" in 1968, it seemed like something of no interest on this side of the pond. However, as I have noted previously, an American bluegrass performed named Bill Emerson somehow happened to hear the song. Now American may not wear tartans and drink tea when they proceed on a fox hunt, but people in bluegrass country have been known to hunt foxes now and then. So Emerson first recorded the song with Cliff Waldren, then re-recorded it when he rejoined his old band the Country Gentlemen, firmly entrenching it in the American tradition so that Tom T. Hall could growl his way through a country version.

And now many people consider "Fox on the Run" to be a bluegrass standard. (No, not that one.)

But one of my other favorite stories about the British and American traditions concerns one particular Englishman. If I tell you that this Englishman was from Liverpool, you can probably narrow the candidates down a bit. (Hint: it's not Andy McCluskey.) Anyway, Liverpool is a dock town, and this particular Englishman developed a love for country music - so much so that he considered emigrating to the United States and living and working in Houston, Texas. He chose Houston because that was where Lightnin' Hopkins lived. However, even in those days it took a lot of paperwork to emigrate to the United States, and this Englishman had missed a lot of school due to illness and decided not to fill out the forms. 

Anyway, Ringo - whoops, I gave it away! - ended up getting another job a couple of years later and didn't think about living in Houston any more. But he retained his love of country, recording Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" co-writing "What Goes On," and playing on other country songs by George and his other bandmates. 

By June 1970, that band had broken up - perhaps you heard the news about this - and Ringo's friend George was recording "All Things Must Pass." During those recordings, Ringo met Nashville steel guitar player Pete Drake, and by June Starr found himself in Nashville, surrounded by Pete Drake and Nashville's finest, recording the country album "Beaucoups of Blues."

Now most country singers have southern accents, and Ringo does not. Yet his Northern accent worked magnificently with the material.

There's an innate sadness in Starr's voice which seems perfectly suited to this kind of music, and he completely inhabits the songs...

So we've seen that British people can perform American songs, and vice versa. 

After all, Slim Whitman was a star in the United Kingdom

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