Saturday, April 29, 2017

Led Zeppelin - Gallows Pole

Led Zeppelin has a lot more cover songs than most people know; this is fundamentally true for two reasons. The first explanation resides in the simple truth that Led Zeppelin are the greatest band ever, so naturally their versions of songs are vastly better known than the originals. The second factor to note is that all Zeppelin covers are very different from the originals.

A quick summary of early days Zeppelin covers contains:

From Led Zeppelin One:
  • “You Shook Me” originally by Muddy Waters.
  • “I Can’t Quit You Baby” originally by Willie Dixon.
  • “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” written by Anne Johannson.
  • “How Many More Times” contains a verse from Albert King’s “The Hunter.”
From Led Zeppelin Two:
  • “Lemon Song” is a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues.”
  • “Bring it On Home” originally by Sonny Boy Williams.
From Led Zeppelin Three:
  • “Gallows Pole” originally by Leadbelly... sort of.
Perhaps the most interesting cover is “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as it was a popular song of unknown origin. At the time of recording the first Zeppelin album the most popular version was by Joan Baez from a live recording which had no credits to the author, so Zeppelin presumed that it was an old song whose creator was forgotten. It was not until the 1980’s when the original writer, Anne Johannson, was made aware of Zeppelin’s existence and their cover of her song, which at that point was really her own fault, who the hell lives through the sixties and seventies and never discovers Zeppelin? I found this article to be a nice explanation of the history of the song:

We can see from the decreasing presence of cover songs that Zeppelin was naturally coming more and more into their own as time went on. This is very common for musical groups, especially when it comes to live performances, song writers refine their craft and their ability to create original material comes more naturally with time. This is why Zeppelin Four onward is effectively all original material. But of all the covers, and quasi covers Zeppelin embarked upon, the sole example on their third album “Gallows Pole” is my favorite.

“Gallows Pole” was among the first Zeppelin songs I heard on the radio when I was young and discovering music for the first time. Along with “The Immigrant Song” it was “Gallows Pole” that made it very important to me to get a copy of Led Zeppelin Three as quickly as I could.

I dabble in guitar, and the only Zeppelin song I ever came close to learning with any kind of ability is “Gallows Pole.” More accurately I was capable of playing one part in particular which is the fast back and forth between A major and G major, this serves as a bridge between verses and the chorus, and it is very fun to play. I know I am stating the obvious here but Jimmy Page’s guitar on “Gallows Pole” is freaking fantastic.

Or is it Page’s guitar work? After all this song was written by Leadbelly. The answer is still yes, Page’s guitar work is fantastic. Leadbelly’s original version is very different from the final manifestation we hear on Led Zeppelin Three.

Leadbelly - Gallows Pole

Is it really Leadbelly's guitar work we are comparing to Page's?  The answer is interestingly only so much, as Leadbelly never claimed to have written "Gallows Pole" he claimed it was an old folk song he had learned somewhere.  So unlike "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" the "Gallows Pole" is literally an old folk song whose original creator is forgotten. 

In recent years, it has become somewhat common among music critics to accuse Led Zeppelin, and specifically Jimmy Page, of being thieves of African American music. I do not really agree with the venom of that accusation. Zeppelin always gave credit to their inspirations but also they changed so much in all of their cover songs. Listen to Leadbelly’s “Gallows Pole” the lyrics are modified, the guitar solo in Zeppelin’s version is completely original, the rhythm and bass does not exist in Leadbelly's version and that bridge I mentioned earlier, the A major G major combination, it does not exist in Albert King’s version. Zeppelin’s cover is barely that, it is more so a complete re-imagining on the song’s concept.

It is not like we accuse Gounod of stealing from Bach when he created “Ave Maria,” despite how very different the final product is from it’s inspiration “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” I feel like that is what I am hearing when I listen to a song like “Gallows Pole,” it is undeniable that it is not an original song, but what Zeppelin did with it made it a unique entity all on its own, just like the “Ave Maria.”

Go and listen to Joan Baez version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” nothing like Zeppelin’s, and the same goes for every other example listed above.  

Potential controversy aside, we, humanity, win in the end, because we get multiple great songs by multiple great musicians. We have the blues to thank for rock and roll, and we have rock and roll to thank for giving us all a reason to live.

Until next month, keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

Monday, April 17, 2017

Led Zeppelin - How Many More Times

Music, and all art, is a perpetual motion machine. Ideas grow from other ideas and spawn new inspiration in an endless cycle of connectivity. There is no beginning, and there is no end.

Led Zeppelin is the greatest thing that ever happened. As someone who has dedicated a large amount of his free time expressing his love of music online it follows that my favorite band of all time would carry tremendous importance to me. Like all things music, Led Zeppelin, are part of the endless evolution of music and while they have their obvious admirers who have followed in their footsteps their heroes are not so well known, largely because Zeppelin eclipsed them all in every way.

I love the blues, and I doubt I would love it so, if it not for Led Zeppelin. This is one of those working backwards discoveries, where I love one band so much I want to know where they got their ideas so unavoidable the eventuality of discover moves in the reverse chronological direction.

The first installment of Led Zeppelin, their self titled debut album, is the clearest example of direct blues inspiration on them. There are three straight cover songs on Zeppelin One, “You Shook Me” by Muddy Waters, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Willie Dixon and while not a blues cover “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is a folk song originally written by Anne Johannson, more on that next review.

It does not end there though, possible my favorite song from this iconic album is “How Many More Times.” It is this song which may have dubbed John Paul Jones bass guitar playing as “galloping” as the punch behind the bass is at it’s highest. Everything about “How Many More Times” feels like a blues inspire rock song, and it is doubtless that it is, but unlike the afore mentioned covers this is primarily original material, and I am unable to pinpoint any direct connection to previous blues song, though that tragically may have something to do with my ignorance of blues music.

There is one clear blues inspiration in “How Many More Times” and that is the melody at the end of the song where two unique changes in pace and sound emerge. The first being Robert Plant breaking into an ode to a woman named Rosie:

“Oh, Rosie, oh girl.
Oh, Rosie, oh girl.
Steal away now, steal away.
Steal away now, steal away.
Little Robert Anthony wants to come and play.
Oh, why don’t you come to me baby?
Steal away.”

For the longest time when I was young I was convinced this was the beginning of blues medley and that “Oh Rosie” must be a cover of sorts, but with the all human knowledge in one place device (the internet) I have been unable to confirm this as true, which leads me to believe this is actual a true to form classic ramble from our friend Robert Plant.

The only meaningful connection I can draw between Rosie and the blues is the old African American work, or negro prison, blues song titled, simply, “Rosie.” Which is a song about the men working and in the distance, there is a woman named Rosie who none of the men can ever speak to or touch, but she tempts them daily. Which would make sense if this influenced Robert Plant in some way.

"Rosie" - Recorded at Mississippi State Penitentiary:

Then we have a second shift in style and with Robert singing:

“Well they call me the hunter, that’s my name,
They call me the hunter, that’s how I got my fame.
Ain’t no need to hide, Ain’t no need to run.
‘Cause I’ve got you in the sights of my……… gun.”

This portion of “How Many More Times” is a blues cover. The original is by Albert King and is titled "The Hunter.”

Albert King - The Hunter

Albert King, I have talked about him before in my review of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla” in which I discussed how his song “As the Years Go Passing By” was partial inspiration for the guitar in that song. You can read all about it here:

In live versions, the medley is longer and includes more rambling that I have been forced to believe are additional creations of Plant’s mind as I have been unable to draw any connection and usual it functions as an extension to the “Oh Rosie” portion of song.

I very much like the BBC sessions which includes the short repetition of “It’s alright, it’s alright,” which perhaps too little to find a proper connection to a blues song, or more likely it is Plant doing his rambling thing. However, the inclusion of:

“Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg.
Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg.
If you don’t squeeze me the way I want you to baby,
Swear I’m gonna kick you out of bed.”

Will be immediately identified as part of Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” from their second album, which is a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues,” which is yet another blues cover by Led Zeppelin.

Robert Johnson - Traveling Riverside Blues

I read somewhere that Plant would break into Buffalo Springfield’s “On The Way Home” in some live versions, but I have never heard a version like that, and I have listened to many versions of this song live; so interesting if true.

It is a fine thing looking to our hero’s heroes. The first couple Zeppelin albums we see just how much blues and African American music meant to Jimmy Page and the boys, and in turn I appreciate all the unique changes they made to all of these songs, even their covers dramatically differ from the originals, but I will be discussing more of that in the next review.

- King of Braves