“In My Time of Dying” is a song that already had a long history by the time Led Zeppelin recorded their version, which was included on their 1975 double-LP Physical Graffiti. With its roots in spirituals dating before the twentieth century, this song has been recorded under a number of titles. Perhaps the earliest recorded version was by country blues and gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded it under the title “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” in 1927. This recording and others mentioned below are included in a MixCloud compilation embedded at the end of this post.
While Blind Willie Johnson exerted a strong influence on Led Zeppelin, it was Josh White’s “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed”, recorded in 1933 and catalogued on Document Records, that Jimmy Page cited as the inspiration for “In My Time of Dying”. Particularly noticeable in this regard is the line “Well, well, well/So I can die easy”, present in Josh White’s version but not Blind Willie Johnson’s. I would also point to a couple of other recordings of this song that probably influenced Led Zeppelin’s interpretation of “In My Time of Dying,” particularly Bob Dylan’s “In My Time of Dyin'” from his 1962 self-titled debut album, which echoes Josh White, and the extended jam version of “In My Time of Dying” recorded in 1969 by the psychedelic blues rock band Fear Itself.
Citing specific influences does not diminish the creativity of Led Zeppelin’s approach to “In My Time of Dying”, though. Led Zeppelin’s musical interpretation of this song was significantly different from the gospel, blues, and folk artists who had recorded the song before them, particularly after the 3:45 mark of their recording on Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin took a country blues/gospel traditional and turned into into a sprawling hard rock blow-out. So sustained is the intensity of Led Zeppelin’s recording that at the conclusion of the track, John Bonham can be heard saying “That’s gotta be the one, hasn’t it?” An extended version of the song was not unprecendented, though. In 1969, Fear Itself had taken a similar approach to the song, recording a blues rock jam that clocks in at 8:44. Not to be outdone, however, Led Zeppelin’s version is over 11 minutes long.
Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and John Sebastian cited Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.
Below is a MixCloud compilation of some of the various versions of “In My Time of Dying” that were recorded before Led Zeppelin released “In My Time of Dying” in 1975. As you can see, Led Zeppelin’s is hardly the first to record this song, though it’s interesting to note that its influence can be heard in almost all subsequent versions of the song. In their introduction to their live performance of “In My Time of Dying” in 2002, folk/bluegrass band Still on the Hill joke that the reason they’re performing this song is because they were asked if they know any Led Zeppelin songs.
|1||Blind Willie Johnson||Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed||1927||00:00|
|2||The Jubilee Gospel Team||Lower My Dying Head||1928||03:08|
|3||Charley Patton||Jesus Is a Dying-Bed Maker||1929||06:10|
|4||Josh White||Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed||1933||09:05|
|5||Gabriel Brown, John & Rochelle French||Tone the Bell Easy||c. 1935||12:06|
|6||Mitchell's Christian Singers||Jesus Goin' Make Up My Dyin' Bed||c. 1938||13:37|
|7||Norfolk Jazz and Jubilee Quartet||Jesus Is Making Up My Dying Bed||c. 1938||16:07|
|8||The Golden Gate Quartet||Toll the Bell Easy||c. 1941||18:15|
|9||The Soul Stirrers||Well, Well, Well||1950||20:46|
|10||Dock Reed||Jesus Goin' to Make Up My Dyin' Bed||1951||23:34|
|11||Horace Sprott||Jesus Going to Make Up My Dying Bed||1954||24:50|
|12||Bob Dylan||In My Time of Dyin'||1962||29:11|
|13||Harry Belafonte||Tone the Bell Easy||1964||31:46|
|14||Sally Terri||Tone Duh Bell Easy||1964||35:03|
|15||Mississippi Fred McDowell||Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed||1965||39:11|
|16||Fear Itself||In My Time of Dying||1969||40:02|
|17||Gospel Songbirds||Tone the Bells Easy||1971||48:46|
|18||John Fahey||Jesus Is a Dying Bedmaker||1971||51:37|
|19||John Sebastian||Well, Well, Well||1971||55:53|
|20||Shocking Blue||In My Time of Dying||1973||58:08|