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.


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? “The Lemon Song”

“The Lemon Song,” included on the 1969 album Led Zeppelin II, is another of Led Zeppelin’s homages to the blues. On these sorts of tracks, Robert Plant was never content to take lyrics from just one source, but for the most part “The Lemon Song” draws on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” According to Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide To Their Music by Dave Lewis, on Led Zeppelin’s first American tour in 1969 they regularly included “Killing Floor” in their sets. Following that tour, however,  they performed the song as “The Lemon Song” and recorded it under that title for Led Zeppelin II with songwriting credits given to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

The first, second and fourth verses of “The Lemon Song,” however, are clearly recognizable from Howlin’ Wolf’s original song.

Killing Floor
by Chester Burnett

I shoulda quit you a long time ago
I shoulda quit you, babe, long time ago
I shoulda quit you and went on to Mexico

If I hada followed my first mind
If I hada followed my first mind
I’da been gone, since my second time

I shoulda went on
When my friend come from Mexico at me
I shoulda went on
When my friend come from Mexico at me
But no foolin’ with ya, babe
I let ya put me on the killin’ floor

Lord knows I shoulda been gone
Lord knows I shoulda been gone
And I wouldn’ta been here
Down on the killin’ floor

The Lemon Song
by Jimmy Page & Robert Plant (& Chester Burnett)

I should have quit you, long time ago
I should have quit you, long time ago
I wouldn’t be here, my children
Down on this killin’ floor

I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
Every time I go away and leave you, darling
Send me the blues way down the line

Said, people worry I can’t keep you satisfied
Let me tell you, baby
You ain’t nothin but a two-bit, no-good jive

Went to sleep last night
Worked as hard as I can,
Bring home my money
You take my money
Give it to another man

I should have quit you, baby
Such a long time ago.
I wouldn’t be here with all my troubles
Down on this killing floor

Squeeze me, baby, ’til the juice runs down my leg
Squeeze me, baby, ’til the juice runs down my leg
The way you squeeze my lemon
I’m gonna fall right out of bed

I’m gonna leave my children
Down on this killing floor

In 1972, ARC music sued Led Zeppelin, claiming that they had plagiarized Howlin’ Wolf and a settlement was reached out of court. Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf’s real name) is now given songwriting credit for “The Lemon Song”.

Some of Robert Plant’s lyrics for “The Lemon Song” are not from “Killing Floor,” but rather from other classic blues songs. The phrase “you take my money, give it to another man” could have been taken from “Black Eye Blues” by Ma Rainey. Then, of course, is Robert Johnson’s lemon phallic reference from his 1937 song “Traveling Riverside Blues,” which became one of Robert Plant’s signature lyrics (Squeeze me, baby, until the juice runs down my leg/The way you squeeze my lemon/I’m gonna fall right outta bed) Plant often inserted these lines into other songs during live performances. On BBC Sessions, Robert Plant used them in “How Many More Times” and “Communication Breakdown”, and Dave Lewis points out that he often included this in the “Whole Lotta Love” medley during live shows.

Some time ago I had argued that Robert Johnson should also be credited for “The Lemon Song,” but I no longer hold that view. First, Robert Johnson was not the first to use a lemon as a sexual image in his music. In the 1929 song “I Want It Awful Bad,” Joe Williams had included the lines “You squeezed my lemon/Caused my juice to run.” Several artists used the image in 1930s, including Roosevelt Sykes in his 1937 song “She Squeezed My Lemon,” as well as Memphis Minnie and Sonny Boy Williamson I. Second, Led Zeppelin did provide an acknowledgement of sorts for Robert Johnson. They performed “Traveling Riverside Blues” as part of their live repertoire, and it is included on BBC Sessions, The first box set, and as a bonus track on the version of Coda included in The Complete Studio Recordings. Led Zeppelin’s version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” includes substantial original contributions from Led Zeppelin and the songwriting credits are properly listed as “Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Robert Johnson.” Third, Robert Plant changed Robert Johnson’s in a significant way. Robert Johnson’s lyrics from “Traveling Riverside Blues” are as follows:

Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
spoken: ‘Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
spoken: That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head

The reference to falling out of bed comes instead from “Stop Messin’ Round” from Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 album Mr Wonderful.

I want you to squeeze a me, baby, ’til my face turns cherry red
You roll me so hard, baby, I’m fallin’ out of bed, now

Led Zeppelin were clearly fans of Fleetwood Mac, particularly when that band was primarily a blues band under the leadership of Peter Green. Fleetwood Mac’s influence played a role not only in “The Lemon Song,” but in “Rock and Roll” and “Black Dog,” as well. Still, Robert Plant gave Robert Johnson credit.

That line “squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg” was just so indicative of that person Robert Johnson…. It’s borrowed, admittedly, but why not? I would really like to think that someone who heard that… would go out and listen to Robert Johnson as a result.  But I wish I’d written that, I really do.

Other influences are evident in “The Lemon Song,” as well, which are worth mentioning even if they don’t warrant changing the songwriting credits. Dave Lewis points out that the arrangement of “The Lemon Song” is similar to Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” from his 1967 album Born Under a Bad Sign. Robert Plant often performed “Crosscut Saw” with the Honeydrippers after his days with Led Zeppelin.

Another influence that’s interesting to note is the Electric Flag, who included a version of “Killing Floor” on their debut album A Long Time Comin’, which was released in 1968. Though the Electric Flag stayed true to Howlin’ Wolf’s lyrics, their version of the song opens with a brief segment of Lyndon Johnson’s “And We Shall Overcome” address to Congress in 1965. The Electric Flag then interrupt Johnson’s oratory with laughter before the music commences. Though this introduction is brief, its effect is to change the meaning of the song entirely. A “killing floor” in classic blues lyrics often referred to a slaughterhouse. On a literal level, many black migrants from the South found jobs in slaughterhouses working on the killing floor. This image was incorporated into blues songs as having hit rock bottom, particularly in the context of a difficult relationship with a woman. By introducing the track in such a satirical way, the Electric Flag alter the meaning of the killing floor. In the Electric Flag’s version of the song, the killing floor becomes the Vietnam War and the urban unrest of the 1960s. Led Zeppelin didn’t attempt this sort of commentary in their version of “Killing Floor” but they had clearly heard the Electric Flag’s version of the song. Jimmy Page’s guitar solo bears some similarity to the Electric Flag’s solo and Robert Plant uses an Electric Flag variant of the lyrics. Where Howlin’ Wolf referred to his “first mind” in the second verse of “Killing Floor,” the Electric Flag sang,

If I hada listened to my second mind
You know I wouldn’t be here now, people
Down on the killin’ floor

Robert Plant followed these lyrics

I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
Everytime I go away and leave ya, darlin’
Send me the blues way down the line

To be fair, in “The Lemon Song” Led Zeppelin took a number of influences to produce something that was uniquely theirs. Still, they drew heavily enough on one source, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” to be forced to change the songwriting credits under threat of legal action. In his scathingly negative review of Led Zeppelin II in Rolling Stone when the album was initially released in 1969, John Mendelsohn took exception to Led Zeppelin’s blues posturing. Mendelsohn’s review is laced with sarcasm and reveals a lot about why Led Zeppelin acquired such a bad reputation with the rock press, particularly with regard to the issue of plagiarism. To Mendelsohn, Led Zeppelin’s heavy interpretation of the blues was a bastardization of a vaunted form. That Robert Plant’s lyrics would quote so freely from the original sources while the instrumental parts had lost the essence of the original was grounds for ridicule to Mendelsohn. Plant later stated that he thought that Mendelsohn “was just a frustrated musician. Maybe I’m just flying on my own little ego ship, but sometimes people seem to resent talent.”

In recent years, critics have tended to be kinder to Led Zeppelin. A 2003 special edition of Q magazine on Led Zeppelin had this to say about “The Lemon Song,” “‘Forgetting’ to credit [Howlin’ Wolf] almost landed Zeppelin in court, but in truth the electrifying combination of Bonham’s sledgehammer drums and Page’s dazzling solo makes it entirely their own.” Had Led Zeppelin been better about citing their sources, they may not have met with such hostility from rock journalists in their early years and it may not have taken such a long time for the rock press to evaluate Led Zeppelin’s music on its own terms.