Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”

“Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”, which closes Led Zeppelin III, draws on a number of country blues songs. Along with “Custard Pie” on Physical Graffiti, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is a prime example of Robert Plant’s cut-and-paste approach to borrowing lyrics from blues artists. Almost every line in “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper was lifted from a country blues song. The most obvious source is “Shake ‘Em On Down” by Bukka White. Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded a song by the same title, but other than a similar refrain, the lyrics of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s version differ from Bukka White’s. The lyrics Robert Plant uses for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” are more directly from Bukka White’s version, while Jimmy Page’s bottleneck guitar has a sound similar to the version by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

The refrain (“When I done quit hollerin’, babe/I believe I’ll shake ’em on down”) was taken from Bukka White’s version of “Shake ‘Em On Down”. In the third verse Robert Plant mixes “Shake ‘Em On Down” with “Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson (“Listen, mama, put on your mornin’ gown/Put on your nightshirt, mama, we gonna shake ’em on down”—lines he would reuse in “Custard Pie”). The song most heavily quoted in “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper,” however, is “Lone Wolf Blues” by Oscar Woods, as the second and fourth verses both come from this song. Robert Plant also inserted a reference to a “brown-skin woman”, which is probably taken from the song of that title by Howlin’ Wolf or perhaps Sunnyland Slim. The alternate lyrics that Robert Plant uses for the refrain in the second half of the song (“I been mistreated, babe”) also draw on “Lone Wolf Blues”.

The lyrics to “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” are given below, listing the source Robert Plant used for each line. In a couple of cases the association is a stretch, particularly the lines “Get me, baby, won’t be late/You know by that I mean not seconds late”. Those lines may have come from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Down in the Bottom” written by Willie Dixon, which contains the phrase “don’t be late” rather than “won’t be late”. While not a certainty, all of the other lines are readily identifiable from blues sources, and “Down in the Bottom” is on Howlin’ Wolf’s  “Rockin’ Chair” album, which was one of the first records Jimmy Page and Robert Plant shared upon first meeting. The other tenuous association is the final line of the song with Tampa Red’s “Blue and Evil Blues,” which has a similar theme and concludes with the singer shooting his woman.

Hats Off to (Roy) Harper
Lyrics Source
When I done quit hollerin’, babe Shake ‘Em On Down
I believe I’ll shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Get me, baby, won’t be late Down in the Bottom [?]
You know by that I mean not seconds late Down in the Bottom [?]
Must I holler, must I shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
When I done quit hollerin’, babe Shake ‘Em On Down
I believe I’ll shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Well, I ain’t no monkey, I can’t climb no tree Lone Wolf Blues
No brown-skin woman Brown Skin Woman
Gonna make no monkey outta me Lone Wolf Blues
Yeah, I ain’t no monkey, sure can’t climb no tree Lone Wolf Blues
I been mistreated, babe Lone Wolf Blues
I believe I’ll shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Well, I been mistreated, babe Lone Wolf Blues
I believe I’ll shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Listen, mama, put on your morning gown Help Me
Put on your nightshirt, mama Help Me
We gonna shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Must I shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Well, I done been mistreated baby Lone Wolf Blues
I believe I’ll shake ’em on down Shake ‘Em On Down
Gave my baby twenty-dollar bill Lone Wolf Blues
If that don’t finish her, I’m sure my shotgun will Lone Wolf Blues
Yeah, I gave my babe twenty-dollar bill Lone Wolf Blues
Well, if that don’t get that woman out Lone Wolf Blues
I’m sure my shotgun will Lone Wolf Blues
Yeah, I’ll go shoot her, now Blue and Evil Blues [?]

“Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is a strange recording and a rather odd way to pay tribute to Roy Harper, who was a folk singer with minimal blues influence. Perhaps the tribute to Harper is in the eccentricity of the recording itself, which would be fitting as Harper is certainly eccentric. Still, as it is, “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” serves as more of a tribute to country blues artists of the 1930s than to the man mentioned in the title. Jimmy Page explained the tribute in a 1979 interview in New Musical Express. Chris Salewicz was asking Jimmy Page about his political beliefs and being true to one’s convictions. Jimmy Page pointed to Roy Harper as someone he had great respect for in this regard. According to Jimmy Page, “Harper’s ‘Stormcock’ was a fabulous album which didn’t sell anything. Also, they wouldn’t release his albums in America for quite a long time. For that I just thought, ‘Well, hats off to you’. As far as I’m concerned, though, hats off to anyone who does what they think is right and refuses to sell out.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” is how the songwriting credits are listed: “Traditional, arr. by Charles Obscure”, presumably a pseudonym of Jimmy Page. With multiple artists quoted, shouldn’t at least one of them have received songwriting credit for this track? How much of an artist’s work needs to quoted before they deserve to be acknowledged in the credits? A line? A refrain? A verse? Two verses? I don’t know what the rules for songwriting credits are, but to my mind quoting two verses, as is the case with “Lone Wolf Blues”, warrants songwriting credits for Oscar Woods. Also, the Bukka White refrain, repeated several times throughout the track, plays a key role in “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”, and so Bukka White should have been credited on this song as well. It should be noted that Bukka White was still alive when “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” was recorded.

Lone Wolf Blues
by Oscar Woods:

Mama mother told me, when I was quite a child (2x)
I say the life that you are living will kill you after a while

I just begin to realize the things my mother say (2x)
Since I been down here I been mistreated this way

I never loved no one woman, hope to God I never will (2x)
All these triflin’ women will get some good man killed

Now I ain’t no monkey and I sho’ can’t climb a tree (2x)
And I ain’t gonna let no woman make no monkey out of me

Now I sent my baby a brand new twenty-dollar bill (2x)
If that don’t bring her, I know my shotgun will

Shake ‘Em On Down
by Bukka White

Yes, you’re a nice girl, mama
And little girl
Night before day
We gonna shake ’em on down

I need some time holler, now
Oh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’, now
Must I shake ’em on down

Too much is debted to me
Through the week
Save these chili peppers
Some ol’ rainy day, here

Best I’m hollerin’, now
Ooh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’, now
Must I shake ’em on down, now

Fix my supper
Let me go to bed
This white lightnin’ done gone
To my head

Oh, must I holler now
Ooh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’, now
Must I shake ’em on down

I ain’t been in Georgia, babe
I been told
Georgia women got the best
Jellyroll

These nights time holler, now
Oh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’, mama
Must I shake ’em on down

See See mama, heard
You, done-done
Made me love you, now I know
Man done coming

Best I’m hollerin’, now
Oh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’, mama
Must I shake ’em on down

Pretty girl’s got
They don’t know
What it is make me drunk
At that old whiskey still

It’s best I’m hollerin’, now
Oh, must I shake ’em on down
I done shout hollerin’
Must I shake ’em on down.