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The Folkloric Traditions of Led Zeppelin – A journey into their history.

This article will be an exploration into the disparate folkloric traditions that influenced the British rock group Led Zeppelin. It will primarily focus on the first four albums of the band’s discography and the main influences of each one. From the beginning with the first two albums and their obsession with the American blues tradition from both the Southern Delta and Chicago to Albums III and IV and the inclusion of more European folk traditions as well as references to the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien. By looking at the musical and lyrical composition of songs from Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue, the influence of the group on subsequent generations of musicians can be more easily ascertained.

Before looking at Led Zeppelin specifically it is important to note that all of the contemporary British popular music owes much to the blues. Even down to the way that bands are generally set up with vocals, guitar(s), bass and drums, which itself has roots in the Chicago blues scene from the late 1940s and 1950s. The 1950s saw a rise in the influence of American music, and the influence of the blues in the UK ‘challenged the perceptual dichotomy of folk authenticity or commercial promise’. Now music could be both musically ‘authentic’ and commercially successful. The influence of American folk traditions gathered pace in 1954 when ‘two related musical crazes hit Britain almost simultaneously: rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle’. Skiffle especially had an impact on the musical development of Britain’s youth. Lonnie Donegan had a string of top ten hits contributing to an estimated ‘30,000 – 50,000 [skiffle] groups in the British Isles by 1957’. 

Jimmy Page, the orchestrator of Led Zeppelin was certainly a part of the burgeoning movement of British youth that was interested in the folk traditions of Skiffle, rock ‘n’ roll and especially the blues. He became part of what was known as the Surrey Delta a rich talent pool from which also came Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Skiffle’s explosion in the 1950s led, in turn, to the London ‘blues explosion’ of the early 1960s. Blues Incorporated were arguably the most influential London band at this time and it is known that Jimmy Page played with founding member Cyril Davies at the Marquee Club supporting Chicago blues icon, Muddy Waters. It is possible therefore to note pre-Led Zeppelin exposure to the blues in both the wider sense of the UK’s youth music scene and more specifically to members of Led Zeppelin. 

It is not a leap of great faith, therefore, to suggest that Led Zeppelin owe much of their sound to both Southern Delta and Chicago Blues even before listening to their records. Though that blind faith is richly rewarded and Led Zeppelin I and II fizz with the influence of the blues. Musically they often use chord structures based around blues scales such as Good Times Bad Times which uses the I, IV, V and VII chords of the Em scale. Page’s solos often make use of blues scales such as the minor pentatonic with Susan Fast stating that Page ‘draws extensively on blues licks derived primarily from the Delta [sic] blues scale’. 

John Bonham’s drum style is also heavily influenced by acoustic blues with his syncopated rhythms that are reminiscent of the syncopation of melody used to add a percussive effect to the Delta blues of artists such as Robert Johnson. Speaking of Robert Johnson in his song ‘Cross Road Blues’ on the second line of the first verse, ‘he used a nasal falsetto tone’ probably an effect of ‘Islamic influences on African music’ that can be traced back from the blues; this is a technique that Robert Plant would utilise to great effect throughout his career with Led Zeppelin.

Lyrically also, in these first two albums they are heavily influenced by the subject matter and phrasing of blues.  One example of this is the AAB Criterion formula that can be found in the band’s lyrics. Michael Taft explains the AAB Criterion as a lyric that ‘would not necessarily be expressed in a single line, twice repeated without variation. There might be and usually was one repetition, but instead, the second line would slightly modify, by way of emphasis.’ Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston said on the sublect “Well this got to be a thing where people listening would expect that; so, they still do. So, in order to get things across they would do it”. Its use, both as a formula and as a means of emphasising the meaning of the lyrical content of the song, means that ‘these are not merely academic criteria but a folk-criteria as well’. A notable occurrence of the AAB Criterion in Led Zeppelin’s work is ‘Communication Breakdown’. The lyrics ‘Hey girl stop what you’re doin’!/ Hey girl you’ll drive me to ruin’ shows an altered second line in a similar pattern to that of traditional blues lyrical phrasing.

Thematically the lyrical content of the Blues consists in the main of “traditional phrases” such as don’t you leave me here, mistreat, lonesome, baby’ etc and is associated with traditional themes such as manhood, loss and the breakdown of relationships. Led Zeppelin’s song Good Times Bad Times certainly falls into step with such themes that have become synonymous with the blues. Fast also posits that ‘sexual posturing is featured in the music’s performance’ as well as ‘overt sexuality in its lyrics’. Led Zeppelin II’s The Lemon Song would certainly fall into this category with the line ‘Squeeze me baby, ’till the juice runs down my leg’ as well as referencing Howling Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ in its opening verse. Fast goes on to say that ‘Lyrically, Plant leaned very heavily on blues songs, often combining sections from several sources into a single song’.

The greatest nod by Led Zeppelin to the blues in their early work is undoubtedly the blues covers that are a part especially of their first album. Their cover of Willie Dixon “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, is in parts played ‘note-for-note’ by Page to Dixon’s version. Surely a guitarist of Page’s qualities could have written parts for himself. By not doing so he outwardly wears the blues influences that guided the Led Zeppelin’s musical and geographical direction towards America in the first years of their life as a band. Even without the other unabashed use of the blues’ formulaic tendencies, the band’s decision to cover artists from the American blues scene leaves little room to deny its influence on the music of Led Zeppelin. 

While their first two albums primarily focused on their blues influences for their third album Led Zeppelin began to look further afield towards Tolkien and other influences linked to a folkloric past such as Norse Eddas and Sagas, Anglo Saxon epics and Celtic influences. These influences mix together to meld into an amalgamation of influences that create an atmosphere of a folkloric tradition without leaning too heavily on any one source. Robert Walser notes that Zeppelin’s images ‘seem not to have any historical coherence, but they are all available in the present as sources of power and mystery’. 

The first Tolkien reference that we see is actually on the second album, however, with ‘Ramble on’ in which both ‘Mordor’ and ‘Gollum’ are referenced. The lyrics, however, do not strictly follow the picture of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the appearance of the maiden who is stolen by Gollum does not quite fit with the events of Tolkien’s novels.  By making references to characters of Middle Earth Led Zeppelin look to create an air of Tolkien rather than a faithful depiction of his novels in song form. This is in the same way that Tolkien took from various folkloric sources, most notably the Finnish national story the Kalevala. Tolkien was in his own words was “immensely attracted to something in the air of the Kalevala” and as argued by Mathew Bardowell ‘wanted to recreate the very atmosphere in which these stories [of the Kalevala] live’. Led Zeppelin rather than attempting to recreate Tokien’s world are capturing an ‘aural image’ of the world of Tolkien in which the imagery of Middle Earth is ‘a convenient back drop to let Led Zeppelin be themselves’. 

David Bratman goes as far as to say ‘they are not interested in Tolkien in any serious way’ ‘they just think that orcs and Nazgûlare cool’. Bratman’s analysis of the band certainly goes too far here and passes off the bands obvious long-standing interest in both Tolkien and ideas of a folkloric past as fleeting and juvenile. Especially in the case of Jimmy Page, whose own interests in the occult led him not only to purchase a house that had belong to famous occultist, Alistair Crowley’s but led him to create each band member their own sign of the occult as seen on the fourth Led Zeppelin album. 

One of the songs most accredited with Tolkien references that Led Zeppelin produced in their career is the “Battle for Evermore”. Certainly, it is impossible to escape with references to ‘Ring Wraiths dressed in black’. More than a reference just to Tolkien, however, it is the best example of the mixing pot of influences that Led Zeppelin were using at the time. Lyrically it is possible to see a range of influences that are separate to Tolkien. The band themselves said that the song was based in part on ‘Anglo-Saxon battle sagas’. This Anglo-Saxon pastoralism was joined by elements of a more Celtic variety such as the reference to ‘Avalon’ the legendary island of Welsh Arthurian legend in the first verse of the song.  

Musically it is very different to the songs on the first two albums. Even down to the instruments that they used. Rather than the blues formula of guitar, bass drums and vocals, the band utilised instruments such as the mandolin; an instrument synonymous with folk music and directly related to the lute of ‘Old English instrumentals’ which Paige likened the song to.Metrically the song is also very different. The strong beat-based music of songs such as Communication Breakdown is changed for an offbeat style with little percussion. 

The single biggest indicator that the band was looking to complement the Tolkien and folkloric elements in their lyrics with the aura of their music was the introduction of Sandy Denny ‘the Grande Dame of the British folk music scene’.Having previously worked with Fairport Convention changing their style from one almost entirely indebted to American style folk and blues to one that was far more influenced by traditional British folk music; Led Zeppelin now looked to use her to cement their influences into a recognisable style. It shows the conscious decision by the band to meld these influences together into one song.  

Led Zeppelin were not a band that intended to hide their influences. Throughout each album it is clear to see what is driving the band forward creatively. From blues to Tolkien and European folk-tradition they crafted a mixing pot of influences that together created their own style that influences artists heavily in the modern era. In that sense Led Zeppelin have created their own folk tradition that is not bound to a certain geographical location or time frame but has a more timeless global following, due to the scale of the success that they found that their brand of music brought.  

Words by Guest Writer : Sam Brunt : Suave Martyrs, ‘Footsteps’: Next Single Out 07.07.20