When the Levee Breaks
|"When the Levee Breaks"|
|Single by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie|
|B-side||"That Will Be Alright"|
|Format||10" 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||June 18, 1929|
|Writer(s)||Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie aka Minnie Lawlers|
|Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie singles chronology|
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
"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 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, credited to Memphis Minnie and the individual members of Led Zeppelin, were partially based on the original recording. Many other artists have also recorded versions of the song or played it live.
"When the Levee Breaks" was originally recorded by the blues musical duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. In the first half of 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood ravaged the state of Mississippi and surrounding areas. It destroyed many homes and devastated 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.
Led Zeppelin version
|"When the Levee Breaks"|
|Song by Led Zeppelin from the album Led Zeppelin IV|
|Released||November 8, 1971|
|Recorded||December 1970 – March 1971|
|Genre||Blues rock, hard rock|
|Led Zeppelin IV track listing|
Led Zeppelin recorded a version of the song in December 1970 at Headley Grange, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. The song had earlier been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.
According to Led Zeppelin guitarist and producer Jimmy 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 Ludwig 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. Page later explained:
We were playing in one room in a house with a recording truck, and a drum kit was duly set up in the main hallway, which is a three storey hall with a staircase going up on the inside of it. And when John Bonham went out to play the kit in the hall, I went "Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do this!" Curiously enough, that's just a stereo mic that's up the stairs on the second floor of this building, and that was his natural balance.
Back in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, Johns compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through guitarist Page's Binson echo unit. The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory.
"When the Levee Breaks" was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the "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 it a few times in the early stages of their 1975 U.S. Tour, before dropping it for good. However, the song was revived for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1995.
"When the Levee Breaks" was the only song on the album that was not re-mixed after a supposedly disastrous mixing job in the U.S. (the rest of the tracks were mixed again in England). The 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 twelve 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.
Led Zeppelin's version was used in the 2012 movie Argo
Samples of the drum track
The opening drum riff from the Led Zeppelin recording, played by drummer John Bonham, has been repeatedly sampled in hip hop and other music since the 1980s, as a result of its distinctly "heavy" sound. The first well-known sample was in the Beastie Boys song "Rhymin' & Stealin'" from the 1986 album Licensed to Ill. This usage prompted the remaining members of Led Zeppelin to try to take legal action against the Beastie Boys. Notable other songs in which the drum track is sampled include:
- The 1984 Cocteau Twins album Treasure (Cocteau Twins album) uses an official patch from the E-mu Drumulator
- The 1987 Coldcut song "Beats + Pieces" (and later "More Beats + Pieces" in 1997)
- The 1988 Nasty Rox Incorporated song "Wooba Wubbaa II"
- The 1989 Beastie Boys song "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" (the "Year and a Day" segment)
- The 1990 Sielwolf song "Reddrum" (track 5 of the self entitled EP)
- The 1990 Saint Etienne song "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" (originally by Neil Young)
- The 1991 Chapterhouse song "Pearl"
- The 1991 Ice-T song "Midnight", from the album O.G. Original Gangster
- The 1992 Dr. Dre song "Lyrical Gangbang"
- The 1992 Sophie B. Hawkins song "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover"
- The 1992 Ya Kid K song "Risky Business"
- The 1992 Neneh Cherry song "Trout", with Michael Stipe
- The 1992 Beastie Boys song "So What'cha Want"
- The 1993 Kazik song "Jeden Przykład Fortuny Z Rodzimego Kraju"
- The 1994 Enigma song "Return to Innocence"
- The 1994 Mike Oldfield song "Magellan"
- The 1995 Björk song "Army of Me" 
- The 1997 The Tea Party song "Temptation"
- The 1998 Massive Attack song "Man Next Door"
- The 1999 Enigma song "Gravity of Love"
- The 2000 Tomoyasu Hotei song "Battle Without Honor or Humanity"
- The 2000 Era song "Hymne"
- The 2000 Eminem song "Kim"
- The 2000 Scooter song "She's The Sun"
- The 2000 El Doopa song "Prohibition"
- The 2002 Rob Dougan song "I'm Not Driving Anymore"
- The 2009 Karnivool song "Simple Boy"
- The 2012 John Frusciante song "Walls And Doors"
A number of other artists have covered the song or played it live:
- Page and Plant had performed it on their MTV Unplugged appearance and their 1995-96 world tour, swapping it with "Nobody's Fault but Mine" at times. John Paul Jones worked the song into the tour for his two solo albums.
- With Plant playing guitar along with T-Bone Burnett's band, Alison Krauss sang it for the CMT Crossroads TV special starring Plant and Krauss, to promote their album Raising Sand.
- Robert Plant and Alison Krauss regularly covered the song during their tour of USA and Europe in April and May 2008.
- Led Zeppelin parody cover band Dread Zeppelin covered it on 5,000,000.
- The London Philharmonic Orchestra performed a version of the Led Zeppelin cover on the CD Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin in 1997.
- Hardcore punk band Judge recorded a cover version during the sessions for their final EP There Will Be Quiet (1990). The song appeared first on the CD edition of the EP, and later on their anthology What It Meant: The Complete Discography.
- W.A.S.P. released a version on the bonus disk of The Crimson Idol in 1991.
- John Campbell covered it on his Howlin' Mercy album in 1993.
- Jeff Buckley covered it on the so-called Rarities from NYC (that contains some songs recorded on tape and never released) in 1996.
- The gothic rock band Rosetta Stone covered it on their album An Eye For The Main Chance in 1991.
- Tori Amos played it on her 2005 world tour, at a concert in Austin, TX just days after the hurricane on September 2, 2005.
- Gov't Mule has been playing it in concert since 2005.
- A Perfect Circle included a version on their cover album eMOTIVe in 2004. There were few changes in lyrics but the melody was very different from Led Zeppelin's version.
- The drum part was the inspiration for Megaphone's song "Stain" from their 2005 album "For Cryin' Out Loud." The band also performs part of the song live at the end of "Stain."
- The Tuvan group Yat Kha performed a version on their 2005 album, Recovers, featuring throat singing effects by the group's lead singer, Albert Kuvezin.
- Bob Dylan recorded an adaptation under the name "The Levee's Gonna Break" for his 2006 album Modern Times.
- Film score composer John Powell on the soundtrack to the 2006 film Ice Age: The Meltdown.
- Paul Jones & Dave Kelly covered it on their 2007 CD "Live at the Ram Jam Club".
- Kristin Hersh covered it on her 1994 EP "Strings".
- Stream of Passion recorded a cover of the song for their single Out In The Real World and their live album Live in the Real World.
- Stanton Moore recorded a version without lyrics on his album III released in 2006.
- Buckwheat Zydeco recorded this song on their May 5, 2009 album Lay Your Burden Down, featuring blues slide guitarist Sonny Landreth.
- Down performed it as a cover during their BBC Session, April 22, 2008.
- Bonerama has performed it live along with other Led Zeppelin songs.
- Blues Traveler front-man John Popper covered this song frequently on his 1999 tour 
- Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite performed a cover on their 2012/2013 tour.
- A version by Roadsaw is featured on the compilation Sucking the 70's – Back in the Saddle Again.
- A Louisiana French version of this song, translated by Rocky McKeon and performed by Isle Dernière, is featured on the compilation En Français: Cajun 'n' Creole Rock 'n' Roll Vol. 2 by Bayou Teche Brewing.
- Hard rock act Razer covered the song on their 2011 album "Dark Devotion Expanded Edition" and the version was cited as one of the best cover songs recorded that year as well as receiving recurrent airplay on SiriusXM's Octane channel despite having never been released as a single.
- "When the Levee Breaks". allmusic. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
- Cheseborough, Steve (1 May 2004). Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 132–133. ISBN 1-57806-650-6.
- Garon, Paul (1 April 1992). Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80460-3.
- Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
- Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
- Welch, Chris (1 October 1998). Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused – The Stories Behind Every Song. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 70, 72. ISBN 1-56025-188-3.
- Lewis, Dave (1 September 2004). Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music. Omnibus Press. p. 33. ISBN 1-84449-141-2.
- National Public Radio, Guitar Legend Jimmy Page, June 2, 2003.
- Cavanaugh, David. "Jimmy Page, 'Mission Accomplished.'" Uncut Magazine. Take 132 (May 2008): 49-50.
- "Artist Samples beginning with the letter L". The-Breaks.com. Retrieved 2006-07-30.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Triple J Music Specials – Led Zeppelin (first broadcast 12 July 2000)
- Pytlik, Mark (2003), Bjork: Wow and Flutter, ECW Press, p. 172, ISBN 9781550225563
- "Number one for news, opinion, sport & celebrity gossip". Birmingham Post. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- "Internet Archive Search: creator:"John Popper"". Archive.org. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- "Album Review: En Français: Cajun ’n’ Creole Rock ’n’ Roll Volume 2". Offbeat.com. 2012-10-01. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- "En Francais Vol. 2 CD Release Party - Cajun and Creole Rock & Roll | WWOZ New Orleans 90.7 FM". Wwoz.org. Retrieved 2013-11-06.
- Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, by Chris Welch, ISBN 1-56025-818-7
- The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, by Dave Lewis, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9