The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #209: When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #209: When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin.

As I have said many times in posts during this countdown, Rock n’ Roll is built upon a foundation of The Blues. There is no better proof of that saying than “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. “When the Levee Breaks” is actually based on an old Blues song that was written in the 1920s, not long after the mighty Mississippi River overflowed its banks, causing levees to fail and catastrophic flooding to occur all along the Mississippi Delta. The original song was written and recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Many of their original lyrics can be found in the Led Zeppelin version found on the album simply known as, “Led Zeppelin IV”.

While the lyrics to “When the Levee Breaks” pays faithful homage to the original version, the song was updated by Robert Plant and his excellent harmonica work off of the top, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (for their guitar parts) and, most notably, by the monstrous, thundering drumming of John Bonham (who was recorded at a stately manor, in a tall room with a soaring stair case, using special mics and sound recorders, which helped to give his beats an extra echo-y sound). The result of these musical innovations is to take a traditional Blues-sounding song and elevate it with modern orchestration. Jimmy Page is on record as saying the final mix of “When the Levee Breaks” is among his favourite of any song the band recorded. In particular, he likes how steady Robert Plant’s vocals were, amid the swirling sounds of guitars and drums near the end.

Even though this song is about a flood that happened almost 100 years ago, any time I listen to this song, I think about New Orleans and surrounding area when the levees broke there during Hurricane Katrina. Despite what we foolish humans may think, the fact remains that Mother Nature is not one to be trifled with. “When the Levee Breaks” is a Blues-based account of the devastation that follows when Nature wreaks its vengeance on those who don’t live as one with the land. It is a bleak song, filled with plaintive cries for Mercy. But, as the lyrics so clearly state:

“Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good.

No, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good.

When the levee breaks, Mama you’ve got to move.”

Of course, Led Zeppelin, like so many other bands before them and after them, give a shout out to Chicago, as the home base of The Blues in America. But, if Chicago is the home base of The Blues, the absolute cradle is the Mississippi Delta, where this song was originally speaking of. So, as you get to listen to “When the Levee Breaks”, listen to the story being told but, also, listen to how the members of Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant singer, Jimmy Page-lead guitar, John Paul Jones-bass and John Bonham-drums) update the original song with some of the most epic playing (harmonica, guitars, drumming) of all-time.

Without further delay, here is Led Zeppelin with one of their biggest hits; a song built squarely on a foundation of The Blues, “When the Levee Breaks”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “When the Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, can be found here. ***Listen for exactly how many of the original lyrics made it into Led Zeppelin’s version intact. You might be surprised at the number.

The link to a video that shows you how Robert Plant played the harmonica as he did, can be found here.

The link to the video containing a short documentary of behind-the-scenes information about “When the Levee Breaks”, can be found here. *Specifically, this is about how John Bonham’s drums were mic-ed.

The link to the official website for Led Zeppelin, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing music by legendary bands and newcomers, alike. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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