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.”
Jimmy Page is correct in pointing out that Anne Briggs was performing the song before Bert Jansch, although she did not record her version of the song until 1971, and the guitar work in her version bears little resemblance to Bert Jansch’s playing.
Perhaps the passing of a song from one artist to another has never been so well documented as it is with “Blackwaterside”. In the liner notes for Anne Briggs’s self-titled 1971 LP, A.L. Lloyd explained,
Some English singers know this as The False Young Man. It’s one of those pieces whose verses have floated in from half-a-dozen other songs. A form of it was published late in the nineteenth century by the London broadside printer Henry Such of Southwark. Anne’s version is the one popularised from a BBC Archive recording of an Irish traveller, Mary Doran. Anne says her accompaniment “is based on Stan Ellison’s version.
In his massive volume Folksongs Of Britain And Ireland, Peter Kennedy documented the earliest recordings of “Down by Blackwaterside”. One of the most influential of these recordings was “Paddy and Mary Doran, rec. P. Kennedy and S. O’Boyle, 1952: BBC 18579”. It is this version of the song that A.L. Lloyd taught to Anne Briggs, and Bert Jansch credited Anne Briggs for introducing the song to him. In a Mojo interview in 1994 Jansch told Colin Harper, “They were so old, these songs, and they were coming alive through her singing. I remember learning “Blackwater Side” from Anne, basically by playing on the guitar exactly what she’d sung and fitting various riffs to it.” English folk musician Ralph McTell went so far as to write a song about Anne Briggs teaching “Blackwaterside” to Bert Jansch called “A Kiss in the Rain”, adding an artistic bit of documentation to the transmission of this song from Anne Briggs to Bert Jansch.
In Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man: An Unauthorized Biography, George Case asserts that it was Al Stewart who taught Jimmy Page Bert Jansch’s version of “Blackwaterside”. Stewart was following Bert Jansch closely and he was aware that Jimmy Page shared his interest in Jansch’s innovations. In When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Mick Wall quotes Jimmy Page as saying,
At one point I was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch. When I first heard [his 1965 debut] album I couldn’t believe it. I t was so far ahead of what anyone else was doing.
Jimmy Page was in the studio recording with Al Stewart when they discussed Bert Jansch’s version of “Blackwaterside”. Page learned to play the song with on “open” tuning (DADGAD). Jimmy Page later said, ” I used to call DADGAD my C.I.A tuning–Celtic-Indian-Arabic–because that’s what it was.”
Jimmy Page has indicated in interviews that he always strove to bring something original to all of Led Zeppelin’s tracks–and used that as justification for claiming authorship. In the case of “Black Mountain Side” Page incorporated Indian influences in the song, including a guitar break where he simulated a sitar. In addition, “Black Mountain Side” includes a tabla, which was played by Viram Jasani. A year earlier Jasani, accomplished on the sitar, had appeared in Boom! (1968) directed by Joseph Losey, an outrageously ridiculous film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Elizabeth Taylor plays Flora Goforth, a wealthy woman who is terminally ill, not to mention perpetually rude to the help. She is visited by the mysterious “Angel of Death”, played by Richard Burton–well, not so much mysterious as obnoxious. Jasani appears alongside Nazirali Jairazbhoy in the background entertaining the doomed woman as she dines with “The Witch of Capri” played by Noel Coward. Elizabeth Taylor and Noel Coward take turns reading overwritten lines to one another.
The soundtrack album for this film was composed entirely of John Barry’s music. Jasani was acknowledged only in the closing credits, “Indian Sitar music by Nazirali Jairazbhoy and Viram Jasani”. Jasani went on to have an interesting musical career, but as far as I know, this was it for his movie career. In recent years, Viram Jasani has served as the CEO of Asian Music Circuit, a London-based cultural organization dedicated to promoting Asian music.
All attempts to inject originality into the recording of “Black Mountain Side” aside, however, there’s no denying that Page’s guitar part is straight out of Bert Jansch’s book, and Jansch was aware of the influence he exerted over Jimmy Page. In a 2007 interview with Mick Wall in Classic Rock, Jansch observes, “the thing I’ve noticed about Jimmy [Page] whenever we meet is that he can’t look me in the eye.” When asked to explain, Jansch continues, “Well, he ripped me off , didn’t he? Or let’s just say he learned from me. I wouldn’t want to sound impolite.” Upon the release of Led Zeppelin I Bert Jansch seriously considered suing Jimmy Page. As Colin Harper reports in Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival, however, ultimately his record company Transatlantic decided against it out of a concern that the litigation would drag on and they wouldn’t have the resources to engage in a long legal battle. They thought Bert Jansch had a good chance of winning his case against Jimmy Page, but they were concerned that would open the door to others claiming ownership of a song that had been circulating for many years.
Perhaps Anne Briggs said it best,
When people sang for pleasure and nobody got any money there were none of these problems. All this borrowing and influencing: it’s been done throughout history. It’s how music develops. It only become a very large philosophical question when money enters into it–which is why this bloody old chestnut is still clonking around the universe.
But in this case there was one clear source, Bert Jansch, who made an original contribution to the song that Jimmy Page claimed as his own without attribution. Jimmy Page, who has publicly acknowledged Bert Jansch as an important influence, stripped away the melody and lyrics of “Blackwaterside” and constructed “Black Mountain Side” from Jansch’s distinctive guitar accompaniment. As always, Jimmy Page added his own creative contribution to the song but would it have killed Jimmy Page to cite Bert Jansch? How about “Traditional, arranged Page/Jansch”? Would that have been so difficult? It would have been a decent, honorable thing to do.