“When The Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin

The lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” are relatively simple, to the point where one may think that even they’re symbolic in nature, which to some degree may be true. But concerning said simplicity, they in actuality these lyrics were written for the most part in the 1920s, i.e. during the folk era when lyrical complexity in songs wasn’t really a thing. 

You can view the lyrics, alternate interprations and sheet music for Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks at Lyrics.org.

So as originally conceived the lyrics were quite literal, speaking to a terrible event in history known as the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

So when the singer sings of residents, even “a mountain man”, being compelled to flee his home due to the breaking of a levee, this is something which the original writer of this song witnessed firsthand. And the way the Great Mississippi Flood is recounted is as a woeful, depressing and thoroughly disheartening experience. Indeed no one wants to be forced into a situation where they have to leave home and venture towards an unknown future.

That said, certain lyrics, such as those referencing “going down south” or “north to Chicago”, were added by Led Zeppelin. Of course they had not experienced the aforementioned event and have probably never been in a major flood themselves. So on one hand, it’s logical to deduce that they are memorializing the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 

But from their perspective, the lyrics can also be said to be symbolic. And in that regard, the ‘levee breaking’ can be taken as any majorly-unfortunate event which may cause a person to forsake his or her “happy home”. 

To reiterate, the thesis sentiment doesn’t even revolve around how physically taxing such an expedition would be but rather the emotional toll being forced to make such a decision costs.

Lyrics for "When The Levee Breaks"

Release Date of “When the Levee Breaks”

“When the Levee Breaks” is a remade song by English rock band, Led Zeppelin. It was released on the 8th of November, 1971 as part of the band’s untitled album. The album is also known as “Led Zeppelin IV”. The original version of the song was released in 1929 by Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie.

Another version of the song, “When The Levee Breaks (Alternate UK Mix in Progress)” was released in 2014. It was featured on the deluxe edition of the album, released in 2014.

Who wrote “When the Levee Breaks”?

The following songwriters hold the official writing credits for Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks”:

  • Robert Plant
  • Memphis Minnie
  • John Paul Jones
  • John Bonham
  • Jimmy Page

A Led Zeppelin Classic

“When the Levee Breaks” is widely considered one of the band’s greatest songs. For example, in a 2019 list of the band’s best songs ever compiled by Rolling Stone magazine, this song was put at number 8.

The “Led Zeppelin IV” Album

Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin IV” was released as the band’s fourth studio album.

A significant part of the recording took place in a mobile recording studio, set up in a truck, known as the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio.

The album was produced by Jimmy Page, who doubles as the band’s guitarist.

“Led Zeppelin IV” was officially launched through Atlantic Records, an American record label.

The album was nothing short of a commercial success. It recorded global sales of over 37 million copies, becoming the band’s most successful album and one of America’s best-selling albums.

The album debuted at No. 10 in the band’s home country, UK. It soon rose to the apex of the chart, spending 90 weeks at various positions.

Aside from the UK, the album made it atop charts in the Netherlands as well as Canada. It was No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and ranked top-10 in the following countries:

  • Australia – 2
  • Sweden – 2
  • France – 2
  • Denmark – 2
  • Austria – 3
  • Finland – 7
  • Germany – 5
  • Spain – 8

More Success for “Led Zeppelin IV”

The album’s commercial success got it numerous certifications across the world, including a 24x Platinum certification from the US and 6x Platinum in the UK. In Australia, it went 9x Platinum in Australia.

“Led Zeppelin IV” won the hearts of many music critics across the world. “Powerhouse album”, those were the words used to describe it by Billboard magazine.

UK’s Q magazine placed the album at No. 26 on their 2000 list of the greatest British albums. It took the 42nd spot on the list, “All Time Top 1000 Albums” by Colin Larkin in 2000.

On Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, published in 2012 and 2020 “Led Zeppelin IV” was placed at No. 69 and No. 58 respectively.

In 1999, the album got inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In addition to “When the Levee Breaks”, some other notable songs from this album include:

The Inspiration for “When the Levee Breaks”

The Mississippi River Flood of 1927 is described as the greatest and most destructive river flood to ever occur in the United States. It had rained continuously from the beginning of 1927 in Mississippi that by April, it had caused the Mississippi River to swell up.

The embankment systems set around the river through the neighboring towns had begun breaking off allowing the water to cross over to the land. The spread began from Mississippi, extending through Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and three other towns. Arkansas experienced the greatest damage of 14% of its land covered by the water.               

The effects of the flood quantified in cash were within an estimated amount of between 246 million and a billion dollars. A greater percentage of over 600,000 persons were affected by the flood. A large number of African Americans who worked as plantation farmers lived a little beyond the Mississippi River.

About 200,000 of the black American population’s homes were affected, leaving them to settle in relief camps while the white affected parties were rashly driven to complete safety. This caused massive tension within the African American parties complaining about being less-favored to the white population.

About 500 people died from this flood.

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