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When The Levee Breaks

by

Led Zeppelin



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

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)
Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin Artistfacts
More Led Zeppelin songs
More songs that were adapted from early Blues songs
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Comments (87):

This is a Good Cover
When The Levee Breaks by Zepparella
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xH-_9cwdLug
- Gary, Houston, TX
I think this song is awesome from beginning to end. Bonham's drumming is top notch on this track and Page did another excellent job with the guitar on this one. I would say this song is the second best song from Led Zeppelin IV after Black Dog.
- Thomas, Roswell, NM
Definitely a Led Zeppelin FAVE of mine !

It does'nt matter how many times you hear it ... you can NEVER wear it out !!
- Barry, Gagetown NB Canada, -
This song is f--king awesome. Enough said.
- Nate, New York, NY
Zep left Memphis Minnie last in the credits, cheeky yobs.
- funkspiel, Soggy Bottom, Maldives
The drum beat to this has been straight up robbed on many occasions most recently in the music played between ad breaks in the world cup 2010
- James, Dublin, Ireland
the first time i listened to this song i was freiking out man!!!!its sooo frieken amazing and well played.
- sara, kenosha, United Kingdom
I think this song is the best musical ensemble i've ever heard. Each instrument plays a very different melody or line, but the whole thing sounds just f--king awsome.
It's simply one of the best songs ever recorded, if not the best
- Javier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
"Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good!" Ah I miss when songs were as breathtaking and powerful as this. Alas, the way things look now, nobody will ever create a song this great again. One of the first Zep songs I ever heard, and easily one of my favorites of all time. To this day, my jaw drops everytime I hear this song. From Bonham's pounding beats, Plant's roaring vocal, Page's increasingly desperate guitar riffs, and Jones' sea of bass lines, this song is completely perfect. Just when you think your speakers can't handle anymore and are about to explode, the song just abruptly stops, leaving you out of breath and your heart pounding. Also, this song's lyrics became very appropriate after Hurricane Katrina.
- Brad, Lexington, KY
I love this song. I will love Led Zeppelin forever. This song makes me feel the music and perceive a movie in your mind. I miss this powerful sound.
- Martha, Long Beach, CA
Funny situation. A pipe burst in my sisters house and flooded it.I went over to help her pull up the carpets and help dry the place out. The thing is I was listening to this song when I pulled up in her driveway.
- Joe, Radcliff, KY
Huge drums!
Zeppelin knew which side their bread was buttered on...the blues side, and this pays homage to the delta roots that started it all.
I had a hunch that the harmonica had been reversed, as it says here.
Great song, and Memphis Minnie's lyrics definitely echo so well, as Bonham's kit did, all these decades later.
- oldpink, New Castle, IN
one of my fav led zeppelin songs. it's old school blues.

bonaham is monsterous in this song
- Layla, DC, DC
Jason, from Denver, you're right. i saw it on the Def Leppard:Hysteria episode of Classic Albums on Vh1 classic. he played the first few bars and the band knew that he could go on.
- jack, Claremont, MN
I read or heard somewhere that this was the first song that Rick Allen,the drummer from Def Leppard, played for the rest of the band when he finally perfected playing with one arm. The band was so impressed they started to tear up. Hats off to Rick Allen for NOT giving up.
- Jason, Denver, CO
The reason i started to play drums was beacuse of this song.
- Stephen, Cincinnati, KY
THIS SONG IS THE BEST!!!!!!
Classic heavy Bonzo drumming and wonderful harmonica!!!!!!! THis song is soooo hard to get out of my head, really good beat to go running to!!
- Allie, Pine Knob, MI
A truly unique song. How genius was Page to discover the echoing and backwards play of the harmonica?!?!
- Christopher, Rome, GA
This song gets in your soul, and it is sadly relevant today. (Hurrican Katrina), when the levee breaks have I'll have no place to stay.
- George, little rock, AR
i agree with peter. you fail. shutup.
- paul, columbia, SC
When Katrina hit, this was the first song I thought of! I was in NO four months prior, and am going back.
- Al, New York, NY
If I had to play one song for someone who had never heard LZ, this is the song I would play. This track IMHO captures the essence of everything Led Zep was about, and the performance of John Bonham is a tour de force! I have a question? How come John Bonham is the ONLY drum hero in Rock? How come drummers and bassist get no respect in the rock genre? Before anyone attempts to answer, listen to Levee again and you'll see my point.
- Al, New York, NY
"Cryin' won't help ya, prayin' won't do you no good...cuz when the levee breaks momma you got to move" Sums up half of life pretty well, I think. And the harmonica sums up the other.
- Heather, Los Angeles, CA
The reference of "going to Chicago" in the song refers to the north migration which took place in the early part of the 20th century when Memphis Minnie first wrote the song. African-Americans migrated north in the early part of the 20th century to look for job-opportunities. The route took them from the Mississippi delta north to St. Louis, and ending in Chicago...Modern day 'Home of the Blues'.
- Lou, Chicago, IL
this was the song my roommate said was the first song he heard when the Levee broke in New Orlelens
- George, Waynesburg, KY
Even though it's technically not "their" song, I think it's one of Led Zep's best performances. While Stairway to Heaven (which I also love) showed their virtuosity, I think their performance of this song showed their range and the sophistication of their understanding of blues and related music. And, yes, that harmonica really adds to the desolate quality of it.
- MusicMama, New York, NY
Bonham is awsome in this god rest his soul he was so great
- Bill, Topeka, KS
This is easliy one of the many of Led Zeppelin's underrated songs.
- Chelsea, Wichita, KS
I've heard that this song features a backwards echo on the harmonica part, but i can't really hear anything that resembles a backwards echo. Anyone know which part of the song it is? Is it the entire harmonica part or a certain section of the song?
- Leslie, Los Angeles, CA
Awsome groove. Simply awsome!
- Michael, Carbondale, IL
Is this the first blues/trance track?
- Sheilagh, Edinburgh, Scotland
I just discovered Led Zeppelin....I had lumped them together with The Who and Pink Floyd and hadn't bothered to listened to them properly...When the Levee Breaks has just become my favourite of all time...wish I had been around to see them live in the early seventies...makes modern bands sound second rate...
- Sheilagh, Edinburgh, Scotland
In my opinion this is one of led's greatest songs ever!!!! Cant get enough of those drums and the harmonica is haunting, what else can i say!! i wish i was around in the 70s, looks like i missed out!
- Andrew_G, Canberra, Australia
The beginning of this song with the drums, and when the bass comes in, gets me every time. (by the way, Xavier, your taste in music is not that bad, considering what is out there these days)
- Parker, Boulder, CO
After having seen Led Zep three times in Montreal (1970, 1972, 1975), and follow the career of the band all over those years, for the album the fourth one is their best piece of work with Le Zep II; the best song live 1972 Immigrant Song/Thank you (encore); 1975 Kashmir, Achilles Last Stand. When the levee breaks ? Problably the ultimate sound take in rock music. Mr. Page: a musician and "un maÃ?tre dans son genre".
- MARIO, Gatineau, Canada
The recording gets really crappy sounding when these lyrics happen "Don't it make you feel bad When you're tryin' to find your way home, You don't know which way to go? If you're goin' down South They go no work to do, If you don't know about Chicago." But it doesn't matter cuz the song is still amazing. Second only to Stairway in my opionion.
- Luke, Maple Grove, MN

>>> Funny, that's my favorite part of the song.
- joe, Bethlahem, PA
This song is sooooo greatttttt. I wish i had discovered Led Zeppelin earlier.. Its not too late now, coz i'm 21.. lol.. I'm their greatest fan from where i come from.. My day begins with
Stairway to heaven(I know its a cliche, but i cant get that song off my head), continues with Immigrant song, goes ahead with When the levee breaks, Kashmir for the afternoons, Ramble on for the evenings, and Bron-Y-Aur-Stomp, when i go to sleep.. Of course there are 50-60 other songs in between. This is my daily timetable..
;-)
- Xavier, Pune, India
I think that they should have a big Led Zepplin concert in New Orleans and play this song!
- Ashleigh, Augusta, GA
I too love the harmonica part in this version.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Xavier your welcome.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
Love this song, one of their best. Sets THE benchmark for hard rock drum sounds. There is no better...excepting Kashmir, Archilies Last Stand, Heartbreaker... or
- David, Monrovia, CA
God, I love the harmonica in this great Led Zep song.
- Alan, Milwaukee, WI
Ok Lemme say it here. Songfacts has been like an angel to me. Its too good!!!! After reading facts and the history of a song its so much fun to listen to it. And there are some people whom I'd like to pay respect to. My fav band is Led Zep, i also like Pink Floyd, Beatles, ACDC, The Who, Black Sabbath, Eric Clapton, Queen, Metallica, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Guns N' Roses.. And when i look through songs by these artists in songfacts. I've come across 3 people who have pretty much the same musical taste as me. Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, SC; Jeanette from Irvine, CA; & Tom from Trowbridge, England. You 3 are absolutely amazing! Thanks to the others too for all the posts and comments. Also thanks to the songfacts and artistfacts team for such a wonderful website! I should be leaving now, coz i have my test tomorrow and I've got to study.. wish me luck! ;) Cheers..
- Xavier, Pune, India
The songfacts are right in saying it was written by Memphis Minnie, but she wasn't the only performing on the original track. The guy who sings on the original track is a man by the name of Kansas Joe, and on this same track Memphis Minnie plays the guitar. I wanted to clear this up. There's an mp3 of the original that you guys can download on a website called www.publicdomain4u.com. I definitely recommend downloading this version if you like blues music from that period. I think the original recording was done in 1929.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
The dark groove and apocalyptic ambience of this song really remind me of Free's "Seven Angels" on their last album, Heartbreaker
- Sam, Shanghai, China
When the Levee Breaks, live in Chicago '75=AWESOME
- Chris, Whitesboro, NY
This song changed drumming forever...
- Marlon, Brooklyn, NY
The drumming technique used in the album version shows the genius of Page. He believed that album and live were supposed to be different experiences. Microphone effects and captureing "the sound of the room" was ment for the studio.
- Craig, Springfiel, OR
I was in baton rouge during Katrina, and the one thing i will remember was the weekend before katrina hit, the classic rock station keep playing this, in a sorta warning. and as far as Led Zeppelin comes, well I loce the band so much i even named my black lab after them.
- Warren, Mckenzie, LA
I think of this song when it rains hard, Kashmir when it's really hot and Bron-yr-Aur Stomp when it's cold.
- John, Kalgoorlie, Australia
It sounds great on a stereo, but it probably sounds better on headphones.
- Stefanie, Rock Hill, SC
I don't get this business about 'Levee' (supposedly) only sounding good with headphones. I crank this baby on a stereo regularly & it loses none of its impact.
- David, Orlando, FL
This song is absolutly amazing, but when you listen to the song, the lyrics are difficult to understand in one part, when it says "cryin' wont help ya, prayin wont do you no good" it sounds like cryin "will" help ya. You dont hear the T both times he says it. if someone agrees, comment back


but i gotta say this song is so great!
- jessica, hillsboro, NJ
yep every time i heard about the levees in hurricane katrina i start singing. this should be a themesong to raise money for the victims.
1. the lyrics fit
2. its obscure enough for people to sort of relate it to their personal lives
3. i would be moved to pay money if someone was playing led zeppelin as their themesong.
4. this song ROCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Jeanette, Irvine, CA
This is probably my absolute favorite Zeppelin song. From the first moment I heard it, I was mesmerized. I was so fascinated by the song that I ended up doing some research on the inspiration: the Mississippi Flood of 1927. The more you read about the flood and how the blacks were treated, the more you realize how appropriate Zeppelin's mournful, wailing song is. It captures the misery associated with the tragedy of the flood in a way Minnie could not. For a heartbreaking account of the flood check out this pbs article:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flood/timeline/timeline2.html

For me, it makes me realize that the blues is really about heartbreak. I think Led Zep is one of the most amazing and complex bands EVER.

One last note: there is a reference to "going to Chicago" in the Zeppelin version. It wasn't in Minnie's version but I believe it is a reference to the fact that many Southern Blacks migrated to Chicago after the collapse of the agrarian economy in the Delta. I read an article which states that Zeppelin made reference to Chicago because they had a lot of fans there. I say: nonsense -- these guys knew about the heart and guts and soul of the blues, and if they sing about going to Chicago, it's because that's what Minnie would have put if her song was any longer. They were totally authentic to the feeling of the original, so much that they captured more than was originally there. Well, that's my theory anyway.
- Laura, franklin, TN
Greatest Drums Ever
- Ryan, Brentwood, CA
;)
- Ryan, Brentwood, CA
After the Hurricane in Orleans you have to listen to this song again. This song is an athemn for all the people in the Big Easy. It has a whole new meaning
- Eric, Detroit, MI
I'd say it's the best Led Zep song. No offence to Stairway, I love it and all, but I believe you can find far better displays of talent in music. This being one. Led Zeppelin was a heavy blues band, not a 8 long minute hard-folk band, if you get what I mean. Even Robert Plant doesn't consider it [Stairay To Heaven] to be their masterpeice, unlike Page (but who can blame him, while the general composition of the song may not be the greatest, it may be the best 8 minutes of guitar playing ever recorded). Plant thinks that would be Kashmir, which I might agree. But as far as a song to define Led Zeppelin, this is it. I'd give my left hand to watch Bonzo play this, if he were still alive. Rest in peace.

~Cal
- Cal, Escanaba, MI
Marcus, you're not the only one who has thought of this song after watching the Katrina floods. I guess Memphis Minnie experienced a few Mississipi floods in his day.
- John, Houston, TX
Is it just me or does this song have A LOT to do with the Hurricane Katrina stuff going on. I mean every lyric can be related to what's going on.

Pretty trippy.
- Marcus, Tigard, OR
This song is a total slopfest! It's also one of the greatest songs ever recorded.
- Mike, Emmaus, PA
In the 1980's I used to teach physical geography and geology classes at a University in North Carolina, USA. In the course sections about surface hydrology I'd often ask the students whether they were familiar with Zeppelin's, "When the levee breaks." In 3 years and about 250 students none were familiar with it. I didn't know whether to think I was old or this song was not well known.
- Billie, Stuttgart, Germany
I agree with terrence. You don't need dope to get high with led zep around! This is one of my favorite songs ever!
- Jeanette, Irvine, CA
I believe this is Zep's BEST song
- blake, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Love that drum beat. Great timing of the lrics too.
- Dale, Northamptonshire, England
Second best Ledzep song
the drums in the begining are one of the most memorable and recognizable part of any song ever
true blues and truely great
- Zola, Dublin, OH
Heavy blues! that says it in a nutshell! It's probably the best song on ledZep IV, from the vocals to the drums to the guitar solos... it's perfect! I love it!
- Stefanie magura, Rock Hill, SC
The recording gets really crappy sounding when these lyrics happen "Don't it make you feel bad
When you're tryin' to find your way home,
You don't know which way to go?
If you're goin' down South
They go no work to do,
If you don't know about Chicago." But it doesn't matter cuz the song is still amazing. Second only to Stairway in my opionion.
- Luke, Maple Grove, MN
Steven Tyler and Joe Perry joined Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham (Jason) on stage to perform this song when Led Zeppelin was inducted into the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- kona, Colorado Springs, CO
actually, the drums were recorded in a stairwell, w/ the mics planted 3 stories up, and the drum sound echoed skyward and was captured on the mics.
amazing concepts many musicians had back then...Never to have been repeated by the bands today!
and...ALL done almost w/o hi-tech machines.
look at jimi, the beatles, zep, the who, etc.
- andrew, ny, NY
My faaavorite song from my faaavorite band! The drums are so awesome on this song.
- Sam, Brisbane, Australia
THe intro on Green Day's 'Give me Novacaine' sounds like U2's 'Bullet the Blue Sky', which incdentaly, sounds alot like 'When the Levee Breaks.'
- Ginette, Richmond Hill, Canada
This track is one rollercoaster ride. Unhappy with his old kit, a 'brand new kit that had only just been delivered from the factory' was ordered and this is the kit that Bonzo used on the recording, which explains the amazing sound produced.
- r0zz3r, Somerset, England
Heavy Blues! That's a pretty smart desciption.
- Ian, New York, NY
in fact the live version is ten times better
- charlie, Thomaston, CT
iv got a live version of this and its performed much diffrently
- charlie, Thomaston, DC
Memphis Minnie had writing credits
- Bob, Mt. Laurel, NJ
the beat is great!
- janelle, new york city, NY
Ya...you all pretty much said it, oh well oh well oh well.
Zep feeds my soul.
- Amanda Craigie, winnipeg, Canada
If heavy blues were a genre this would be it
- kabrams, Dallas, TX
easily zeppelin's second best blues song... i think bring it on home takes the cake though, especially the concert versions
- Brendan, Colts Neck, NJ
The most technologically advanced blues you'll ever find. Simply brilliant! The production done with Bonzo's drumming is perfect and the chaotic ending climaxes the intense work on the song
- Adrian, Wilmington, DE
The end of this song is a trip!
- Allen, up, CT
wonder y ppl need dope to get high when u hav led zep?!!! this gets me to a higher place than any dope ever can.period. its a perfect blend of the blues and hard rock .
- terence, mumbai, India
perfect! from beginning to end! can't get much heavier than this, and if you did, you'd ruin it.
- kelly, los angeles, CA
Haha this song rocks! Old school blues, off the best album ever.
- Brian, Paoli, IN
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