Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Trampled Under Foot”

“Trampled Under Foot” was included on the 1975 album Physical Graffiti. By the this time criticisms about Led Zeppelin lifting ideas from African American artists were commonplace, regardless of whether these claims had any substance or not, and Led Zeppelin were clearly aware of their reputation as music thieves. As Physical Graffiti was climbing the charts, Led Zeppelin performed at Earls Court Arena on May 17, 1975. Just before they played “Trampled Under Foot” Robert Plant told the audience that Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” had been the source of inspiration for the song. John Bonham then jokingly accused Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics. Led Zeppelin didn’t appear to have a care in the world at this point, though–plagiarism or otherwise. According to his review of the concert in Melody Maker, Chis Welch asserted, “This was the band firing on all cylinders, at their absolute best”.

John Bonham jokingly accuses Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics to “Trampled Under Foot” at Earls Court Arena, London, May 17, 1975

But did Led Zeppelin really steal the lyrics from “Terraplane Blues”?
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism “In My Time of Dying”

“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.
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Boogie With Stu”

Despite my criticisms about Led Zeppelin’s sorry history of not citing their sources I remain a Led Zeppelin fan. Physical Graffiti
has always been one of my favorite albums and I pre-ordered the Deluxe Edition of that album a few weeks ago. It arrived in the mail late last week.

As I’ve said elsewhere, though Led Zeppelin failed to give proper songwriting credit in several cases, they (almost) always brought something original to each recording, enough to justify partial songwriting credit. Two Led Zeppelin tracks, however, stand out as particularly flagrant examples of plagiarism: “Dazed and Confused” and “Boogie With Stu”. Recent releases now acknowledge that “Dazed and Confused” is “inspired by” Jake Holmes, though it took the threat of legal action to make even that insufficient alteration. The songwriting credits for “Boogie With Stu,” however, remain the same as when Physical Graffiti was released in 1975.
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When the Levee Breaks

On Led Zeppelin IV (or Untitled, The Runes Album, Zoso or whatever you want to call it), Led Zeppelin listed Memphis Minnie along with the four band members on the songwriting credits for “When the Levee Breaks”. In this case, Led Zeppelin fairly gives credit where credit is due in the creation of this monumental masterpiece. The lyrics follow Memphis Minnie’s original “When the Levee Breaks” but this is not a straightforward cover of that song. Led Zeppelin completely reworked the music into a heavy psychedelic track that bears only a distant relationship to the original. As performed by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, “When the Levee Breaks” is a country blues number with spare but deft instrumentation. Kansas Joe sings and accompanies himself on guitar, while Memphis Minnie plays lead guitar with a “Spanish” tuning, according to Steve Calt in the liner notes for the Yazoo compilation Roots Of Rock (1991).
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Babe I’m Gonna Leave You

One of the reasons Jimmy Page liked the name “Led Zeppelin” was that it suggested music that was both light and heavy.  Jimmy Page’s vision for the group was to mix heavy, blues-based rock with acoustic, folk-influenced music.  In their initial meeting, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant played a number of songs to introduce their musical tastes to each other.  One of the songs Jimmy Page chose was an acoustic folk song Joan Baez had performed called “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”.  Jimmy Page knew from the start that he wanted to rework this song in a style that would become characteristic of Led Zeppelin, contrasting heavy rock with the lighter acoustic sections.  “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was included on Led Zeppelin I with the songwriting credits “Traditional, arr. Page”.  On recent reissues, however, this song is now also credited to Anne Bredon.
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Black Mountain Side

Jimmy Page was well versed in a variety of guitar styles.  Beyond blues and rock, Page was fascinated with folk styles, and one of his biggest influences was the British folk guitarist Bert Jansch.  Page loved to combine Celtic and Indian influences, so he took the main theme of Bert Jansch’s “Blackwaterside”, performed as an instrumental adding a tabla and retitled it “Black Mountain Side”.  Where Jansch’s recording of “Blackwaterside” is credited as “Traditional, arranged Jansch”, Jimmy Page gave songwriting credits for “Black Mountain Side” to himself.  In a 1977 interview in Guitar Player Page admitted, “I wasn’t totally original on that. It had been done in the folk clubs a lot; Annie Briggs was the first one that I heard do that riff. I was playing it as well, and then there was Bert Jansch’s version. He’s the one who crystallized all the acoustic playing, as far as I’m concerned.”
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Since I’ve Been Loving You”

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a slow blues number on Led Zeppelin III, which was released in 1970. The common perception of Led Zeppelin’s blues tracks is that they were plagiarized from an older African-American artist, but that is not the case with “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. On this track Robert Plant drew on the work of Moby Grape, a roots-oriented psychedelic band from San Francisco who were active in the late 1960s. Moby Grape’s song “Never”, which was on the 1968 album Grape Jam (packaged as a double-LP release with Wow), is an extended blues workout with a tempo and meter similar to “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” More importantly, “Never” features some of the same phrases and lyrical theme that Robert Plant uses in “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Black Dog”

Some persistent misinformation involving “Black Dog” has been floating around for quite some time now. The first point is that “Black Dog,” which opens Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1971 album (also referred to as Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso), borrowed too heavily from Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” In Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide To Their Music, Dave Lewis states that Jimmy Page “would admit years later” that the vocal part for “Black Dog” was taken from “Oh Well.” It’s ironic when an apologist for the band implies wrongdoing where none exists. Not only is this point groundless, I would argue that “Black Dog” is one of Led Zeppelin’s most original songs. It’s off in its own world with its winding riff and complex time signature changes. Of course, it’s possible to cite songs that influenced John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to write this song, but to suggest “Black Dog” was plagiarized is off the mark.

In their early days Led Zeppelin paid close attention to Fleetwood Mac, which was then a blues band under the leadership of Peter Green. Had it not been for Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin might not have come up with “The Lemon Song,” “Rock and Roll,” or the vocal part for “Black Dog,” as Robert Godwin suggests in his book The Making of Led Zeppelin’s IV. Fleetwood Mac’s influence can certainly be heard in these songs, and “Oh Well Part I” and “Black Dog” have a similar call-and-response dynamic between Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s guitar, but that’s a not the same as thing as plagiarism. Fleetwood Mac released “Oh Well” as a single in 1969 and most radio stations only played the side with “Part I”, which is the part that had the most influence on “Black Dog”. It’s interesting to note that Peter Green regarded “Oh Well Part II”, an expressive instrumental, as the greater achievement.

The second point of misinformation about “Black Dog” is that the riff was inspired by Muddy Waters’ 1968 album Electric Mud. Keith Shadwick in Led Zeppelin: 1968-1980 and Andy Fyfe in When the Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV both repeat this erroneous detail. In the December, 2007, issue of Mojo, however, John Paul Jones states that he wrote the main riff for “Black Dog” after listening to This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. That authors of such definitive books about Led Zeppelin repeated this misinformation is understandable, as it was John Paul Jones himself who for years had misstated the origins of the “Black Dog” riff in interviews. As Steve Sauer explains, John Paul Jones had confused Electric Mud and This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album, but didn’t realize his mistake until Sauer tracked him down with a copy of This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album in his hand. After listening to both albums closely Sauer realized that it was “Smokestack Lightning” from This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album that had inspired “Black Dog.”

It’s not all that surprising that John Paul Jones mixed up Electric Mud and This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album. Both albums were late-1960s attempts to “update” the sound of these blues artists by incorporating more psychedelic instrumentation. While both albums have interesting tracks to recommend them, you can tell that neither artist’s heart was completely into this new sound. In fact, Howlin’ Wolf’s album explicitly stated the artist’s disdain for the record on the cover.

zep_ThisIsHowlinWolfsNewAlbum

This Is Howlin’ Wolf’s New Album also contains spoken interludes where Howlin’ Wolf explains why he doesn’t like his new album. One of his complaints was that electric guitars make “queer sounds.” But John Paul Jones listened closely to “Smokestack Lightning” and was inspired by what he heard. In the December, 2007, issue of Mojo, John Paul Jones told Mat Snow that the track had “a blues lick that went round and round and didn’t end when you thought it was going to.” Using that approach he developed the riff for “Black Dog,” stretching out the pattern over several measures and incorporating time signature changes, which has made this one of the most difficult songs to cover by the Hampton String Quartet, a chamber group that covers rock songs, as reported by Andy Fyfe in When the Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV.

While Robert Plant has resorted to plagiarism on other songs, that is not the case with “Black Dog”. Robert Plant again draws on blues imagery for this track, but with a more subtle approach than on “Custard Pie” or “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper“. On “Black Dog” he incorporates several basic blues images without drawing too heavily on a single source. The image of the “honey dripper” has been used by such artists as Joe Liggins, Big Joe Turner, and Roosevelt Sykes. Sykes even took to referring to himself as “the Honey Dripper” and, of course, Robert Plant used the name The Honeydrippers for the band he formed just after the demise of Led Zeppelin. “Down and out” is a phrase that many blues artists have used, including Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s singles compilation LP Down And Out Blues, released on the Checker label in 1959. Also, Freddie King, Brownie McGhee, and rockabilly singer Jerry Lee Lewis sang of a “big legged woman,” an attractive woman whose sexuality was dangerous. And then there’s the title of the song, a blues image in itself, though as Chris Welch explains, the song “was named after a friendly mutt seen lurching about the building during the sessions.” (I’m not sure “lurching” was really the word he was looking for here, but whatever). According to Debra DeSalvo in The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, a “black dog” as it was used in blues songs foretold death, as in Blind Blake’s “Black Dog Blues,” or a partner’s infidelity, as in Lighnin’ Hopkins’s “Hear My Black Dog Bark”.

All this is not to say that that Robert Plant plagiarized any one source. I put together a Mixcloud compilation of tracks that may have had some influence on Led Zeppelin when they wrote “Black Dog”. Listening to it should make it clear that while it may be possible to cite sources of inspiration for “Black Dog,” this track is Led Zeppelin’s original work. The use of blues images in “Black Dog” is an effective homage to the rich tradition of the blues while reworking the influences in an original way.

Track list:
1. 00:00 Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
2. 03:50 Fleetwood Mac – Oh Well Part I & II
3. 12:50 Blind Blake – Black Dog Blues
4. 15:40 Lightnin’ Hopkins – Hear My Black Dog Bark
5. 19:25 Big Joe Turner – Little Bittie Gal’s Blues
6. 22:05 Roosevelt Sykes & Hattie North – Honey Dripper Blues
7. 25:25 Big Joe Turner – My Little Honey Dripper
8. 27:20 Joe Liggins – The Honeydripper Parts 1 & 2
9. 33:30 Bessie Smith – Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out
10. 36:25 Kokomo Arnold – Down and Out Blues
11. 39:27 Scrapper Blackwell – Down and Out Blues
12. 42:20 Jimmy Liggins – Down and Out Blues
13. 45:15 Sonny Boy Williamson – Down and Out
14. 48:35 Howlin’ Wolf – I’m the Wolf
15. 51:25 Freddie King – Big Legged Woman
16. 55:15 Jerry Lee Lewis – Big Legged Woman
17. 57:32 Brownie McGhee – Big Legged Woman
18. 60:20 Mississippi John Hurt – Got the Blues (I Can’t Be Satisfied)
19. 63:07 Robert Johnson – I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
20. 65:43 Led Zeppelin – Black Dog

Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Custard Pie”

“Custard Pie” opens the 1975 double-LP Physical Graffiti and it served notice that even after six albums, Robert Plant was still drawing heavily from the blues. The source to which Plant owes the greatest debt for “Custard Pie” is “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes with Hammie Nixon, recorded in 1935. The opening lines of “Custard Pie” echo those of Sleepy John Estes’s “Drop Down Mama”. In fact, the entire first verse of “Custard Pie” is drawn from “Drop Down Mama”. In the second verse Plant uses a cut-and-paste approach to country blues lyrics, lifting lines alternately from “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson and “Shake ‘Em On Down” by Bukka White before moving on to “I Want Some Of Your Pie” by Blind Boy Fuller (Sonny Terry later recorded this song as “Custard Pie Blues”). It’s interesting to look at Robert Plant’s lyrics line-by-line to see how freely he was drawing on classic blues lines.

Custard Pie
by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Source
Drop down, baby, let your daddy see Drop Down Mama
Drop down, mama, just dream of me Drop Down Mama
Well, my mama allow me to fool around all night long Drop Down Mama
Well, I may look like I’m crazy, I should know right from wrong Drop Down Mama
See me comin’, throw your man out the door Drop Down Mama
Ain’t no stranger, been this way before Drop Down Mama
See me comin’, mama, throw your man out the door Drop Down Mama
I ain’t no stranger, I been this way before. Drop Down Mama
Put on your night shirt and your morning gown Help Me
You know by night I’m gonna shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Put on your night shirt Mama, and your morning gown Help Me
Well, you know by night I’m gonna shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Your custard pie, yeah, sweet and nice I Want Some of Your Pie
When you cut it, mama, save me a slice I Want Some of Your Pie
Your custard pie, I declare, it’s sweet and nice I Want Some of Your Pie
I Like your custard pie I Want Some of Your Pie
When you cut it, mama… mama, please save me a slice I Want Some of Your Pie
Chewin’ a piece of your custard pie I Want Some of Your Pie
Drop down Drop Down Mama

The lyrics of “Custard Pie” pay homage to the sly sexual images of country blues, but musically, “Custard Pie” is distinct from any of the blues classics it references. While Robert Plant’s lyrics may vary a bit from those of the original songs, the source material is readily identifiable here. In a couple of cases, Robert Plant draws so heavily on the source that “Custard Pie” goes beyond homage, particularly “Drop Down Mama” and perhaps “I Want Some of Your Pie”. Sleepy John Estes and perhaps Blind Boy Fuller should have been credited much in the same way that Led Zeppelin credited Memphis Minnie for “When the Levee Breaks”.

Drop Down Mama
by Sleepy John Estes

Now, drop down, baby, let your daddy be
I know just what you’re tryin’ to pull on me

[Chorus]
Well my mama, she don’t allow me to fool ’round all night long
Now I may look like I’m crazy, poor John do know right from wrong
Go ‘way from my window quit scratchin’ on my screen
You’s a dirty mistreater I know just what you mean

[Chorus]

Some of these women sure do make me tired
Got a, a handful of “Gimme”, a mouthful of “Much obliged”

[Chorus]

Woman I’m lovin’, one teeth solid gold
That’s the onliest woman a mortgage on my soul

[Chorus]

See me comin’ put your man outdoors
You know I ain’t no stranger, has done been here before

[Chorus]

I Want Some Of Your Pie
by Blind Boy Fuller

Says, I’m not jokin’ and I’m gonna tell you no lie
I want to eat your custard pie

[Chorus]
You gotta give me some of it (3X)
‘Fore you give it all away

I’m not breakin’ but you understood
everything I do, I try to do it good

[Chorus]

Now, your custard pie is good and nice
when you cut it, please save me a slice

[Chorus]

Says, I don’t care if I live right cross that street
you cut that pie please save me a piece

[Chorus]
Oh, it’s good for a man 83
you know good well it good enough for me

[Chorus]

Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Stairway to Heaven”

In the movie Wayne’s World, Wayne goes to the music store and begins to play the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” on a Fender Stratocaster that he calls “Excalibur” only to be shown a sign that reads,”No Stairway to Heaven.” Perhaps overplayed on classic rock radio and in music stores, “Stairway to Heaven” is great nonetheless. Running over eight minutes, the song is in a category by itself. Though not issued as a single and available only on Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1972 LP (often called Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso, approximating the glyphs that adorn the album), it became “the most requested song ever played on American radio.”

Led Zeppelin’s critics, such as Will Shade, are quick to point out, however, that the opening guitar riff bears a striking similarity to the song “Taurus” by Spirit, included on their self-titled debut album which was released in 1968. Randy California, who wrote “Taurus”, was aware of the similarity between his song and “Stairway to Heaven” but always maintained a low-key response when asked about it.  A number of websites have repeated (without attribution) the notion that Randy California didn’t regard “Stairway to Heaven” as plagiarism, but rather as a “reworking” of his song.  This is definitely not the case.  Randy California clearly had strong feelings about this, even though he chose not to make a big issue of it.  According to his mother, Bernice Pearl, “when people would ask Randy about [Stairway to Heaven], he used to always say, ‘Let it go.'” but then she went on to say, “There should have been at least one telephone call from Led Zeppelin, some sort of ‘Thank you.’ Something. But it never came.”

He had the chance to have his say about the similarity between “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” in his song-by-song liner notes for the 1996 reissue of Spirit, but all he wrote was, “People always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played ‘Fresh-Garbage’ in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour.” He left it at that, but when asked directly about it in an interview with Jeff McLaughlin in Listener shortly before his death, Randy California was much more direct,

Listener: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, the guitar introduction to your 1967 composition, “Taurus,” is a dead ringer for Zeppelin’s introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971. Did they ever acknowledge their artistic debt to you? They must of known “Taurus,” having performed as your warmup band.

California: Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, “Thank you,” never said, “Can we pay you some money for it?”  It’s kind of a sore point with me.  Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it.  I don’t know.  There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists.  But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad!  [laughs]

Listener: Well, take comfort in the fact that you’re the true author of one of the most instantly recognizable guitar riffs in rock history.

California: Yeah, right

from Jeff McLaughlin, “Spirit’s Still Willing: A Conversation with Randy California,” Listener,  Winter 1997, p. 51. Special thanks to Jeff McLaughlin for providing an original issue of Listener containing his interview with Randy California

Given the similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and Randy California’s “Taurus”, Robert Plant’s lyrics “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west/And my spirit is crying for leaving” take on a different meaning.  Perhaps this is some sort of nod to Randy California, but Led Zeppelin never acknowledged their debt to Randy California.

Beyond that, however, other claims of plagiarism leveled against “Stairway to Heaven” are groundless.  A few other songs that predate “Stairway to Heaven” feature a descending chord pattern similar to the one that opens the song.  The website Everthing2.com mentions a couple of songs that fall into this category, “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers and “Ice Cream Dreams” by Cartoone, but the opening used in each of these songs is more rudimentary and clearly distinct from “Stairway to Heaven”.  What’s more interesting about Cartoone is that they only released one album and Jimmy Page actually plays on it.  “And She’s Lonely” by the Chocolate Watchband contains a section that is very similar to the opening of “Stairway to Heaven.”  Listen particularly to the passage at about three minutes into the song and you’ll hear the pattern, although it resolves a little differently.  “And She’s Lonely” was included on the 1969 LP One Step Beyond and in Led Zeppelin: 1968-1980 Keith Shadwick points out that the Chocolate Watchband had played a show with the Yardbirds in California when Jimmy Page was with the band.

Everything2.com also mentions that Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in “Stairway to Heaven” bears some resemblance to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in “All Along the Watchtower.”  Everthing2.com rightly points out, however, that these are common patterns that have been worked and reworked in many songs.

Often the charges of plagiarism leveled against Led Zeppelin involve Robert Plant’s lyrics, but that is not the case with “Stairway to Heaven”.  On the eve of the release of Led Zeppelin IV, Jimmy Page told Chris Welch, “The words are brilliant—they are the best Robert has ever written.”  They were so proud of the lyrics that they printed them on the gatefold sleeve of the album.  In Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, Chris Welch does mention “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” by Procol Harum as a song that predates “Starway to Heaven” and contains a similar image with the line “the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell”. Other than that image, however, “Stairway to Heaven” shares little with “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”, both in terms of the music or the lyrics.

Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)
by Gary Brooker, Keith Reid

Skip softly, my moonbeams, avoid being seen
Pretend that perhaps you are part of a dream
which seen by some other such person as me
would only glow smiling and nod and agree

Skip softly, my moonbeams, for I have heard tell
that the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell
that pride is the last thing which comes before fall
I’d as soon talk to you as make love to a wall

The image of a “stairway to heaven” had been employed a number of times before Led Zeppelin used it.  Jack Guthrie recorded a song called “I’m Building a Stairway to Heaven” in 1944, and a song of the same title was recorded by the Lewis Family some years later.  The 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death” was retitled “Stairway to Heaven” when it was released in the United States, and Neil Sedaka had a hit with a song called “Stairway to Heaven” in 1960.  No one would suggest, however, that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” had anything to do with Neil Sedaka’s song or any of the other works mentioned.  They only share the title image.  It’s interesting to note how these earlier songs use the image of a stairway to heaven in a purely positive way, while Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin use it in a darker, more ironic sense.  Neil Sedaka swoons for his “heavenly angel” and promises to build a stairway to heaven to reach his idealized love, and the Lewis Family build their “stairway to heaven” through their faith in Christ.  Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” maintains that you can’t buy your way into heaven.  The shift in the meaning of the imagery says more about the spirit of the times than about any specific debt Led Zeppelin owes to Procol Harum, though.