"When the Levee Breaks" is a country blues song written and first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and
Memphis Minnie
Memphis Minnie
in 1929. The lyrics reflect experiences during the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. "When the Levee Breaks" was re-worked by English rock group
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin were an English Rock music, rock band formed in London in 1968. The group consisted of vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones (musician), John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. With a ...
as the last song on their untitled fourth album. Singer Robert Plant used many of the original lyrics and the songwriting is credited to Memphis Minnie and the individual members of Led Zeppelin. Many other artists have performed and recorded versions of the song.

Background and lyrics

When blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie wrote "When the Levee Breaks", the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was still fresh in people's memories. The flooding affected 26,000 square miles of the Mississippi Deltahundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate. The event is the subject of several blues songs, the most popular being "Backwater Blues" by Bessie Smith (1927) and "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues" by Barbecue Bob (1928). Ethel Douglas, Minnie's sister-in-law, recalled that Minnie was living with her family near Walls, Mississippi, when the levee broke in 1927. The song's lyrics recount the personal toll on a man who lost his home and family. Despite the tragedy, biographers also see in it a statement of rebirth.

Recording and release

McCoy and Minnie recorded "When the Levee Breaks" during their first session for Columbia Records in New York City on June 18, 1929. The song features McCoy on vocals and rhythm guitar. Minnie, the more accomplished guitarist of the two, provided the embellishments using a finger picked-style in a Spanish or open G tuning. Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray identifies Joe McCoy as the actual songwriter. However, as with all their Columbia releases, regardless of who sang the song, the record labels list the artist as "Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie". Columbia issued the song on the then-standard Phonograph record#Formats, 78 rpm phonograph record, with "That Will Be Alright", another vocal performance by McCoy, on the flip-side in August or June 1929. The record was released before record industry publications, such as Billboard (magazine), ''Billboard'' began tracking so-called race records, but it has been called a moderate hit. "When the Levee Breaks" is included on several Memphis Minnie compilation albums and blues roots albums featuring various artists.

Led Zeppelin version

Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin were an English Rock music, rock band formed in London in 1968. The group consisted of vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones (musician), John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. With a ...
recorded "When the Levee Breaks" for their untitled Led Zeppelin IV, fourth album. When considering material for the group to record, singer Robert Plant suggested the Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie song. Jimmy Page commented that while Plant's lyrics identified with the original, he developed a new guitar riff that set it apart. However, it is John Bonham's drumming that is usually noted as the defining characteristic of the song.


Before the released version, Led Zeppelin attempted the song twice. They recorded an early version of the song in December 1970 at Headley Grange, using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. It was later released as "If It Keeps On Raining" on the 2015 reissue of ''Coda (album), Coda''. Prior to relocating to Headley Grange, they tried unsuccessfully to record it at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album. Page and John Paul Jones (musician), John Paul Jones based their guitar and bass lines on the original song. However, they did not follow its twelve-bar blues I–IV–V–I structure, but instead used a one-chord or modal approach to give it a Drone (music), droning sound. Plant used many of the lyrics, but took a different melodic approach. He also added a harmonica part; during Audio mixing (recorded music), mixing, a reverse echo effect was created, whereby the echo is heard ahead of the source. John Bonham's drumming, played on a Ludwig Drums, Ludwig kit, was recorded in the lobby of Headley Grange using two Beyerdynamic M 160 microphones which were hung up a flight of stairs; output from these were passed to a pair of Helios F760 Gain compression, compressor/limiters. A Binson, Binson Echorec, a Delay (audio effect), delay effects unit, was also used. Portions of the song were recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the "sludgy" sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. It was the only song on the album that was mixed at Sunset Sound Recorders, Sunset Sound in Hollywood, California (the rest being remixed in London). Page identifies the Panning (audio), panning on the song's ending as one of his favourite mixes "when everything starts moving around except for the voice, which remains stationary." The song was difficult to recreate live; the band only played it a few times in the early stages of their Led Zeppelin North American Tour 1975, 1975 U.S. Tour.

Critical reception

Music critic Robert Christgau cited Led Zeppelin's version of "When the Levee Breaks" as their fourth album's greatest achievement. He argued that, because it plays like an authentic blues song and "has the grandeur of a symphonic crescendo", their version both transcends and dignifies "the quasi-parodic overstatement and oddly cerebral mood of" their past blues songs. Mick Wall called it a "hypnotic, blues rock mantra." AllMusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in a retrospective review, commented that the song was the only piece on their fourth album on par with "Stairway to Heaven" and called it "an apocalyptic slice of urban blues ... as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got, and its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them." In ''The Rolling Stone Album Guide'' (2004), Greg Kot wrote that the song showed the band's "hard-rock blues" at their most "momentous". However, group biographer Keith Shadwick notes the song "suffers from too few ideas added to the ingredients as the minutes tick by, compared with 'Black Dog'" and other songs on the first side of the album.

Other releases

A different version of the song can be found on the second disc of the remastered two-disc deluxe edition of ''Led Zeppelin IV'', released in 2014. This version, known as "When The Levee Breaks (Alternate UK Mix in Progress)", was recorded on May 19, 1971, at the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at Headley Grange. This mix runs 7:09, while the original runs 7:08. A third version is included on 2015 deluxe edition of the album ''Coda (album), Coda'', titled "If It Keeps on Raining (When the Levee Breaks) (Rough Mix)".


Bonham's drum beat is one of the most widely Sampling (music), sampled in popular music. According to Esquire (magazine), ''Esquire'' magazine's Miles Raymer: Artists who have sampled the drum beat include Beastie Boys on "Rhymin & Stealin" (''Licensed to Ill'', 1986); Coldcut on "Beats + Pieces" (''What's That Noise?'', 1989); Dr. Dre on "Lyrical Gangbang" (''The Chronic'', 1992); MC Lyte on "Survival of the Fittest" (''Eyes on This'', 1989); Björk on "Army of Me (Bjork song), Army of Me (''Post (Björk album), Post'', 1995)"; Eminem on "Kim (Eminem song), Kim" (''The Marshall Mathers LP'', 2000); Massive Attack on "Man Next Door" (''Mezzanine (album), Mezzanine'', 1998); and Beyoncé on "Don't Hurt Yourself (Beyoncé song), Don't Hurt Yourself" (''Lemonade (Beyoncé album), Lemonade'', 2016).

See also

*List of Led Zeppelin songs written or inspired by others



* * * * * * * * * * * * * * {{Authority control Songs about floods 1929 songs Songs written by Memphis Minnie Blues songs Columbia Records singles Led Zeppelin songs Songs written by Jimmy Page Songs written by John Paul Jones (musician) Songs written by John Bonham Songs written by Robert Plant Song recordings produced by Jimmy Page Sampled drum breaks