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"When the Levee Breaks"
Song by Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie

from the album Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie

Released 1965
Recorded June 18, 1929
Genre Delta blues
Length 3:12
Label Columbia Records
Writer Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie
Blues Classics by Memphis Minnie track listing
My Baby Don't Want Me No More
"When the Levee Breaks"
You Got to Move, Pt. 1

"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 English 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.[1][2][3][4][5]



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 Chicago; 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 Mississippi 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, Mississippi 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.[6][7]

Led Zeppelin's version

"When the Levee Breaks"
Song by Led Zeppelin

from the album Led Zeppelin IV

Released November 8, 1971
Recorded December 1970 – March 1971
Genre Hard rock
Length 7:08
Label Atlantic
Writer Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham/Memphis Minnie
Producer Jimmy Page
Led Zeppelin IV track listing
Going to California
"When the Levee Breaks"

Led Zeppelin recorded its version of the song in December 1970 at Headley Grange, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. The song had earlier been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.[8]

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."[9] 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.[10][11] 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.[8] The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory.[8] 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.[12] 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.[13]

Page recorded Plant's harmonica part using the backward echo technique, putting the echo ahead of the sound when mixing, creating a distinct effect.[8]

"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.[8]

"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:

Interviewer: How was the swirly effect at the end of "When the Levee Breaks" achieved? I always imagine you sitting there with a joystick...

Page: It's sort of like that, isn't it? It's interesting, on "Levee Breaks" you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging, and at the end you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.[14]

In another interview, Page commented:

"When The Levee Breaks" is probably the most subtle thing on [the album] as far as production goes because each 12 bars has something new about it, though at first it might not be apparent. There's a lot of different effects on there that at the time had never been used before. Phased vocals, a backwards echoed harmonica solo.[9]

Other versions

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

  • Page and Plant had performed it on their MTV Unplugged appearance and their 1995-96 world tour, swapping it with "Nobody's Fault but Mine" at times.[10][11] John Paul Jones worked the song into the tour for his two solo albums.[11]
  • With Plant playing guitar along with T-Bone Burnett's band, Alison Krauss sang it for the CMT Crossroads TV special starring Plant and Krauss, to promote their album Raising Sand.
  • Robert Plant and Alison Krauss regularly covered the song during their tour of USA and Europe in April and May 2008.[15]
  • Led Zeppelin parody cover band Dread Zeppelin covered it on 5,000,000.
  • The London Philharmonic Orchestra performed a version of the Led Zeppelin cover on the CD Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin in 1997.
  • Hardcore punk band Judge recorded a cover version during the sessions for their final EP There Will Be Quiet (1990). The song appeared first on the CD edition of the EP, and later on their anthology What It Meant: The Complete Discography.
  • W.A.S.P. released a version on the bonus disk of The Crimson Idol in 1991.
  • John Campbell covered it on his Howlin' Mercy album in 1993.
  • Jeff Buckley covered it on the so-called Rarities from NYC (that contains some songs recorded on tape and never released) in 1996.
  • Rosetta Stone covered it on the album An Eye For The Main Chance in 1991.
  • Tori Amos played it on her 2005 world tour, at a concert in Austin, TX just days after the hurricane on September 2, 2005.
  • Gov't Mule has been playing it in concert since 2005.
  • A Perfect Circle included a version on their cover album eMOTIVe in 2004. There were few changes in lyrics but the melody was very different from Led Zeppelin's version.
  • The drum part was the inspiration for megaphone's song "Stain" from their 2005 album "For Cryin' Out Loud." The band also performs part of the song live at the end of "Stain."
  • Bob Dylan recorded a version under the name "The Levee's Gonna Break" for his 2006 album Modern Times.
  • Film score composer John Powell on the soundtrack to the 2006 film Ice Age: The Meltdown.
  • Kristin Hersh covered it on her 1994 EP "Strings".
  • Stream of Passion performed it in 2006 and recorded that on the second disc of their Live in the Real World album.
  • Buckwheat Zydeco recorded this song on their May 5, 2009 release Lay Your Burden Down. This version features blues slide guitarist Sonny Landreth.


  • 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


  1. ^
  2. ^;_ylu=X3oDMTEzaTM5YnVyBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMQRjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA0Y4NjFfMTMz/SIG=11m7keaft/EXP=1255110641/**http%3a//
  3. ^;_ylu=X3oDMTEzNWFxMHZoBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDNARjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA0Y4NjFfMTMz/SIG=1503qriaj/EXP=1255110641/**http%3a//
  4. ^;_ylu=X3oDMTEza2hidmphBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDOARjb2xvA2FjMgR2dGlkA0Y4NjFfMTMz/SIG=12vjcdn1m/EXP=1255110641/**http%3a//
  5. ^;_ylu=X3oDMTE0a2J1cDJhBHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMTYEY29sbwNhYzIEdnRpZANGODYxXzEzMw--/SIG=120putte2/EXP=1255110641/**http%3a//
  6. ^ Cheseborough, Steve (1 May 2004). Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 132–133. ISBN 1-57806-650-6. 
  7. ^ Garon, Paul (1 April 1992). Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80460-3. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  9. ^ a b Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  10. ^ a b Welch, Chris (1 October 1998). Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused - The Stories Behind Every Song. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 70, 72. ISBN 1-56025-188-3. 
  11. ^ a b c Lewis, Dave (1 September 2004). Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music. Omnibus Press. pp. 33. ISBN 1-84449-141-2. 
  12. ^ "Artist Samples beginning with the letter L". Retrieved 2006-07-30. 
  13. ^ Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Triple J Music Specials - Led Zeppelin (first broadcast 12 July 2000)
  14. ^ Cavanaugh, David. "Jimmy Page, 'Mission Accomplished.'" Uncut Magazine. Take 132 (May 2008): 49-50.
  15. ^ Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the Birmingham NIA

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