As I write this, California is seeing historic atmospheric rivers and treacherous flooding from down in Los Angeles up through the San Francisco Bay Area, where Acoustic Guitar is based, and beyond. I can’t help but think of “When the Levee Breaks,” which, like plenty of other songs in the blues canon, was inspired by a similar weather event, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The duo of Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy first recorded the song in 1929, and it became best known through the recomposed electric version that Led Zeppelin released in 1971.
The notation here is informed by the original, whose bright 12-bar blues accompaniment belies the darkness of the lyrics that McCoy sings. There are two guitars on the 1929 recording, but I’ve arranged it for one. The up-stemmed notes capture Memphis Minnie’s nimble leads and fills (for a deep dive on her style, be sure to check out Play the Blues Like…Memphis Minnie, available for instant download at store.acousticguitar.com), while the down-stemmed notes flesh things out with classic alternating bass patterns.
To learn the song, first tune to open G (low to high: D G D G B D). If you’d like to play along with the recording, clamp on a capo at the second fret, causing everything to sound in the key of A; also, tune your guitar slightly sharp. (Alternatively, you could tune to open A [E A E A C# E], as the young blues prodigy Muireann Bradley of rural Ireland does for her excellent interpretation, but that will of course place extra tension on your guitar’s neck.)
As with any fingerstyle blues piece, pick the bass notes with your thumb or thumbpick, and the notes on the higher strings with your index and middle fingers. Regarding your fretting hand, heads up on the C chord measures, where it’s best to bar the fifth fret (in actuality, the seventh, if you’re using the capo) with your first finger across strings 1–5 and grab the seventh-fret A (or ninth-fret B) with your third finger.
If you listen to the original recording, you’ll hear Memphis Minnie play subtle variations between each verse. To make the most of this arrangement, try to learn a few of these phrases by ear, and then go for the same improvisatory spirit when you perform the song.
The TAB and notation for “When the Levee Breaks” is available to members of the Acoustic Guitar Patreon page at the Supporters tier or higher. Join our community to access live workshops, song transcriptions, exclusive podcast episodes, and more!