Tracing The Blues – Led Zeppelin – Blues Thieves or Rock Geniuses?

I posted the following article on my personal blog about two years ago. With all the recent scuttlebutt about Led Zeppelin and Stairway To Heaven, I thought this would be a good one to revisit. I’m not tackling the Stairway lawsuit here. This is only about blues songs, and how they were often rehashed, reused, and remade by emerging rock stars like Led Zeppelin.


Led Zeppelin is my favorite band, but they have a dirty little secret many people don’t know about. Today I want to talk about that secret. No, it’s not about their partying days. Everyone knows how wild they were. This is about their music. Ready? Quite a few of their songs were remakes – possibly even thefts – of early blues tunes. In fairness, this was not something unique to Zeppelin. Many sixties rock bands took old blues songs, put their own spin on them, and walked away with hits. Some bands gave the old blues musicians a writing credit, which meant they shared the royalties. But, sadly, many did not. It must have been horrible for those old-timers, who were mostly poor black men, to watch bands get rich on the songs they wrote. While the copyright aspect is troubling, I don’t think it was necessarily intentional theft. Back then, music was often a kind of free floating entity, out there to be molded and shaped by any and all musicians


My focus today is on Led Zeppelin because they are largely responsible for my love of Blues. Zeppelin’s interpretation of these old songs resurrected them in a way that touched me somewhere deep and visceral. Through their music, I found my way to musicians like Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon.

One of the oldest blues songs Zeppelin remade is When The Levee Breaks. This song was written and recorded by husband and wife team Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie back in 1929. They wrote the song as a sort of ode to the devastating Mississippi flood in 1927, known historically as The Great Mississippi Flood. Here is the original, recorded on a 10-inch 78 RPM in June, 1929:


Zeppelin’s version was recorded in late 1970 and used on their fourth album, which was released in 1971. (Memphis Minnie was given writing credits, along with the band members.) We go a long way from 1929 to 1971:


Zeppelin’s first album holds quite a few early blues songs. One of those is I Can’t Quit You Baby, written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Otis Rush in 1956. By this time, the electric guitar was being used by blues musicians. Otis handles his well, though his voice is what really strikes me. That first note… wow! Here’s a look and a listen. Notice how well behaved (bordering on catatonic) the audience is at the end – and how absolutely white.


From what I’ve read, Led Zeppelin did not originally credit Willie Dixon for writing this, though I won’t speculate as to whether that was done maliciously or not. Here is Zeppelin’s verison, recorded in 1969:


One song that might be blatant theft, depending on your viewpoint, appears on their album, Physical Graffiti. The song is In My Time of Dying, and the writing credits are listed solely as the Led Zeppelin band members. But the original goes way back to at least the mid 1920s. In 1926, Reverend J. C. Burnett recorded the song as Jesus Is Going to Make Up Your Dying Bed, but that recording was not released. That seems to be the first time the song appears in a recording, though I’m not clear on whether Burnett was the song’s original writer. In 1927, Blind Willie Johnson recorded his slightly altered version with the title Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed. Here it is:


In 1962, Bob Dylan recorded this song, changing the title to In My Time of Dyin’. In 1975, Zeppelin recorded their version of the song (adding the g to ‘Dying’) for their album Physical Graffiti. Because it was a traditional gospel song with no clear ownership, Zeppelin was able to claim it as their own without legal repercussions. Here is their version, at least 50 years after the original:


Whether you think Led Zeppelin, and other rock bands like them, stole these early blues songs maliciously or not, you have to admit they brought The Blues to the masses. Many of these songs trace back to a time when brilliant black musicians were poor, living in shacks and working in cotton fields. These songs were born in a time when black musicians could play in a “white” club when invited, but they could not step inside simply to listen. The majority of people probably have no idea that much of the early rock they love has roots digging deep into history. But for others, like me, these bands instilled a lifelong love and respect for the raw sound that is The Blues.


Do you have a favorite old blues song made popular by a later rock band?



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