When the Levee Breaks (7:08)

Cover of Led Zeppelin IV

From Led Zeppelin IV and 18 other releases

“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. According to the When The Levee Breaks Songfacts, African-American plantation workers were forced to work on the levee at gunpoint, piling sandbags to save the neighboring towns. Hence the lyrics, “I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away.”

Led Zeppelin’s version
“When the Levee Breaks”

Album Led Zeppelin IV
Released November 8, 1971
Recorded December 1970 – March 1971
Length 7:08
Label Atlantic
Writer Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham/Memphis Minnie
Producer Jimmy Page

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin 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. Recording for the song took place in December 1970 at Headley Grange, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. It had already been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.[

The Led Zeppelin version features a distinctive pounding drum beat by John Bonham recorded in a three-story stairwell, 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 Robert Plant.

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