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"When the Levee Breaks" is a blues song written and first recorded by husband and wife Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The song is in reaction to the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

It was famously re-worked by Englishmarker rock group Led Zeppelin as the last song on their fourth album, released in 1971. The lyrics in Led Zeppelin's version were partially based on the original recording. Many other artists have also recorded versions of the song or played it live.

While the Led Zeppelin version is still under copyright by the band, the original song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie is currently in the public domain.


The original "When the Levee Breaks" was produced by the blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. The lines at the end of the song, "Going to Chicagomarker; sorry but I can't take you", are quoted in "Going to Chicago Blues" by Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie Orchestra. In the first half of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood ravaged the state of Mississippimarker and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and ravaged the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Many people were forced to flee to the cities of the Midwest in search of work, contributing to the "Great Migration" of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. During the flood and the years after it subsided, it became the subject of numerous Delta blues songs, including "When the Levee Breaks", hence the lyrics, "I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away" and "I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home". The song focused mainly on when more than 13,000 residents in and near Greenville, Mississippimarker evacuated to a nearby, unaffected levee for its shelter at high ground. The tumult that would have been caused if this and other levees had broken was the song's underlying theme.

Led Zeppelin's version

Led Zeppelin recorded its version of the song in December 1970 at Headley Grangemarker, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. The song had earlier been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studiosmarker at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.

The Led Zeppelin version features a distinctive pounding drum beat by John Bonham, driving guitars and a wailing harmonica, all presumably meant to symbolize the relentless storm that threatens to break the levee , backing a powerful vocal performance by vocalist Robert Plant. The vocals were processed differently on each verse, sometimes with phasing added. Plant had the original McCoy and Minnie recording in his personal collection. He removed and rearranged lines and line parts from the original song and added new lyrical parts (again, the lyrics focused on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927), and combined it with a revamped melody.

According to Led Zeppelin guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, the song's structure "was a riff that I'd been working on, but Bonzo's drum sound really makes a difference on that point." The famous drum performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns by placing Bonham and a new drumkit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, and recording it using two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones at the top, giving the distinctive resonant but slightly muffled sound. Back in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, Johns compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through guitarist Jimmy Page's Binson echo unit. The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory. The drum beat has long been popular in hip hop and dance music circles for its "heavy" sound, and has been sampled for many tracks. At one time the remaining band members took legal action against Beastie Boys for their use of this drum sample on "Rhymin & Stealin" from Licensed to Ill.

Page recorded Plant's harmonica part using the backward echo technique, putting the echo ahead of the sound when mixing, creating a distinct effect.

"When the Levee Breaks" was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the "sludgy" sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. Because this song was heavily produced in the studio, it was difficult to recreate live. The band only played it a few times in the early stages of their 1975 U.S. Tour.

"When the Levee Breaks" was the only song on the album that was not re-mixed after a supposedly disastrous mixing job in the U.S. (the rest of the tracks were mixed again in England). The original mixing done on this song was kept in its original form.

In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page elaborated upon the effects at the end of the song:

In another interview, Page commented:

Other versions

Several other artists have covered the song or played it live:


  • Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, by Chris Welch, ISBN 1-56025-818-7
  • The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, by Dave Lewis, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9


  6. Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  7. Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  8. Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Triple J Music Specials - Led Zeppelin (first broadcast 12 July 2000)
  9. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the Birmingham NIA

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