Led Zeppelin – When The Levee Breaks

Drums… one of the loudest widest drum sound I have ever heard. The song just rolls through you. The song was off of the classic Led Zeppelin IV album. 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

The song was an old blues song (big surprise) written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) but Zeppelin did credit them on this one.


From Songfacts.

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” >>

Memphis Minnie McCoy (born Lizzie Douglas), was a Blues artist who recorded this in 1929. Robert Plant had the record in his collection. >>

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.

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.

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.

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. >>

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. >>

Page and Plant played an acoustic version on their 1995 No Quarter tour, swapping it with “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” at times. >>

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.

When the Levee Breaks

If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Lord mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home
Oh well oh well oh well.
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.
Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
All last night sat on the levee and moaned,
Thinkin’ ’bout me baby and my happy home.
Going, go’n’ to Chicago,
Go’n’ to Chicago,
Sorry but I can’t take you.
Going down, going down now, going down
going down now, going down, going down, going down, going down
Going down, going down now, going down
going down now, going down
going down now, going down
Going d-d-d-d-down
Woo woo




Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

28 thoughts on “Led Zeppelin – When The Levee Breaks”

      1. They picked up two good prospects that could…could be traded for Kluber or the catcher for the Marlins. They saved 17-18 million by doing this…but Homer Bailey??? I’m sure they had to take him. The Reds just got better.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bailey is a salary dump – something else has to be brewing either the Harper signing or one of the deals you mentioned.. otherwise it would be one of those deals where you are left shaking your head…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The thing about Harper is…that isn’t Friedman’s style to put that much money on one player. Since Friedman joined them in 2014 there has been no giant contracts…except Kershaw of course.
        They had too many outfielders any way…I kinda hate seeing Puig go…he was playing more consistent…should be exciting now.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I bet they either go for the catcher or Kluber- that trade freed up money but not that kind of money- in Harper’s range.


      5. With Buehler, Kluber and Kershaw…that would put Rich Hill at 4 or 5…pretty good pitching rotation. I agree…Kershaw is trying to get velocity back…but I hope his back holds up.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I only recently started appreciating this song. Not sure if it is the song, or the fact that it isn’t played as much as the usual LZ songs. I really didn’t know anything about it. I like that it is actually an old song.


      1. He was a brick layer so yea he hit them hard…plus he used some of the largest sticks you could get.
        In a stairwell…I’ve seen some documentaries of that house they recorded it in.


  2. Great song and, as you say, the drums in this are great. There’s a vid here of Jimmy Page revisiting Headley Grange. If you play it from 1.39 (I’ll try to set the link that that point) you’ll catch him talking about the hallway and the song.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is really cool. It has to be strange for Jimmy to go back there after all of these years. I’m sure the place is in much better shape than it was then.

      Liked by 1 person

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