The lyrics to this song (written by Memphis Minnie in 1927) are based on The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 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." After the levee breached, blacks were not allowed to leave the area, and were forced to work in the relief and cleanup effort, living in camps with limited access to the supplies which were coming in. Many left at the first chance since there was no work in the Delta after the destruction of all of the plantations; hence the lyrics, "Oh cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do no good" and "I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home" (thanks, Laura - franklin, TN)
Memphis Minnie McCoy (born Lizzie Douglas), was a Blues artist who recorded this in 1929. Robert Plant had the record in his collection. (thanks, Nick - Warwick, RI)
Heavily produced in the studio, this was difficult to perform live, which Led Zeppelin did only twice: once in a "warm up" gig in Denmark before their 1975 US tour, and again on their second night in Chicago. (thanks, Marshall - Gallatin, TN)
The vocals were processed differently on each verse, sometimes with phasing added.
Jimmy Page's backward echo technique, where he would put the echo ahead of the sound, was used on the harmonica.
Was very difficult to mix, and due to extensive processing, is best appreciated with headphones.
Many rap songs have sampled the drums on this. For sampling purposes, this is great because of the clean, uninterrupted drum break at the beginning. The Beastie Boys used it on "Rymin' And Stealin'" which opened their first album License To Ill. Other songs to use it include "Lyrical Gangbang" by Dr. Dre and "Beats And Pieces" by Coldcut.
The song was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed it down. Plant then sang in the sort of in between key the song was now in, which explains its sort of flat and sludgy sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. This also made it very difficult to accurately reproduce live. (thanks, Jared - Meadville, PA)
This song was the only one on the album that was not remixed after a supposedly disastrous mixing job in the US (the rest of the tracks were mixed again in England). The original mixing done on this song seemed to suit it very well, so it was kept in its original form. (thanks, Adrian - Wilmington, DE)
John Bonham's drums were recorded in a stairwell at Headley Grange with the microphones planted 3 stories up. The drum sound echoed skyward and was captured on the mics, creating a very innovative and distinctive sound. (thanks, andrew - ny, NY)
A Perfect Circle covered this on their third album Emotive. The album is made up of covers that changed normal upbeat songs into very dark political songs. (thanks, Ian - New York, NY)
Since 75 years have passed since Memphis Minnie's version was recorded in 1929, the song is now in the public domain, meaning anyone can record it without paying royalties. (thanks, Timothy - Bloomington, IN)
Page and Plant played an acoustic version on their 1995 No Quarter tour, swapping it with "Nobody's Fault But Mine" at times. (thanks, Chris - Whitesboro, NY)
Jason Bonham said to Q magazine of his father's contribution to this song: "It's the drum intro of the Gods. You could play it anywhere and people would know it's John Bonham. I never had the chance to tell dad how amazing he was - he was just dad."
Page used his Danelectro guitar for the slide guitar part. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)