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.
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 engineerAndy Johns by placing Bonham and a new Ludwig drumkit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, and recording it using two Beyerdynamic M160microphones 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.
Page recorded Plant's harmonica part using the backward echo technique, putting the echo ahead of the sound when mixing, creating a distinct effect.
"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.
A different version of this song can be found on the second disc of the remastered 2CD deluxe edition of Led Zeppelin IV. This version, known as "When The Levee Breaks (Alternate U.K. Mix)", was recorded on May 19, 1971, at the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at Headley Grange with engineer Andy Johns and mix engineers George Chkianz and Jerry. This mix runs 7:09, while the original runs 7:08.
Music critic Robert Christgau cited Led Zeppelin's version of "When the Levee Breaks" as their fourth album's greatest achievement. He argued that, because it plays like an authentic blues song and "has the grandeur of a symphonic crescendo", their version both transcends and dignifies "the quasi-parodic overstatement and oddly cerebral mood of" their past blues songs. Mick Wall said that Led Zeppelin revised the original song as a "hypnotic, blues rock mantra." Q magazine wrote that the album's "big room ambience [is] still best described by 'When the Levee Breaks'". Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing for AllMusic, said that "When the Levee Breaks" was the only song on their fourth album on-par with "Stairway to Heaven" and called it "an apocalyptic slice of urban blues ... as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got, and its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them." In The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Greg Kot said that the song showed the band's "hard-rock blues" at their most "momentous".