"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.
It was famously re-worked by English rock group Led Zeppelin as the last song on their fourth album, released in 1971. The lyrics in Led Zeppelin's version were partially based on the original recording.
The original work for "When the Levee Breaks" was produced by the blues musical duo known as "Kansas Joe McCoy" and "Memphis Minnie." MP3 available at archive.org The lines at the end of the song, "Going to Chicago; sorry but I can't take you", are quoted in "Going to Chicago Blues" by Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie Orchestra. In the first half of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood ravaged the state of Mississippi and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and ravaged the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Many people were forced to flee to the cities of the Midwest in search of work, contributing to the "Great Migration" of African Americans in the first half of the 20th century. During the flood and the years after it subsided, it became the subject of numerous Delta blues songs, including "When the Levee Breaks", hence the lyrics, "I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away" and "I's a mean old levee, cause me to weep and moan, gonna leave my baby, and my happy home". The song focused mainly on when more than 13,000 residents in and near Greenville, Mississippi evacuated to a nearby, unaffected levee for its shelter at high ground. The tumult that would have been caused if this and other levees had broken was the song's underlying theme.
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 utilised 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. The vocals were processed differently on each verse, sometimes with phasing added.
According to Page, the song's structure "was a riff that I'd been working on, but Bonzo's drum sound really makes a difference on that point." The famous drum performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns by placing Bonham and a new drumkit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, and recording it using two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones at the top, giving the distinctive resonant but slightly muffled sound. Back in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, Johns compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through guitarist Jimmy Page's Binson echo unit. The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory. The drum break has long been popular in hip hop and dance music circles for its "heavy" sound, and has been sampled for many tracks. At one time the remaining band members took legal action against Beastie Boys for their use of this drum sample on "Rhymin & Stealin" from Licensed to Ill.
The song was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down. Plant then sang in the sort-of-in-between key the song was now in (approximately F minor), which explains its sort of flat and sludgy sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. Because this song was heavily produced in the studio, it was difficult to recreate live. The band only played this song a few times in the early stages of their 1975 U.S. Tour.
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 was kept in its original form.
In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page elaborated upon the effects at the end of the song:
Interviewer: How was the swirly effect at the end of "When the Levee Breaks" achieved? I always imagine you sitting there with a joystick... Page: It's sort of like that, isn't it? It's interesting, on "Levee Breaks" you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging, and at the end you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.
In another interview, Page commented:
"When The Levee Breaks" is probably the most subtle thing on [the album] as far as production goes because each 12 bars has something new about it, though at first it might not be apparent. There's a lot of different effects on there that at the time had never been used before. Phased vocals, a backwards echoed harmonica solo.