“When the Levee Breaks” is a country blues song written and first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and 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 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.
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 Delta – hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate. The event is the subject of several blues songs, including “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton and “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith.
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 it a statement of rebirth.
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 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 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 recorded “When the Levee Breaks” for their untitled 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. 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 based their guitar and bass lines on the original song. However, they do not follow its twelve-bar blues I–IV–V–I structure, but instead use a one-chord or modal approach to give it a droning sound. Plant uses many of the lyrics, but takes a different melodic approach. He also adds a harmonica part; when mixing, a backward echo effect was created, whereby the echo is heard ahead of the source.
Parts of “When the Levee Breaks” were recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the “sludgy” sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. It is the only song on the album that was mixed at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, California (the rest being remixed in London). Page identifies the panning on the song’s ending as one of his favorite 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 1975 U.S. Tour.
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 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.
Bonham’s drum sound is one of the most widely sampled in popular music. 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 with engineer Andy Johns and mix engineers George Chkianz and Jerry. This mix runs 7:09, while the original runs 7:08. A third version is included on 2015 deluxe edition of the album Coda, titled “If It Keeps on Raining (When the Levee Breaks) (Rough Mix)”. This version features a faster tempo and a different arrangement than the final version.