The Led Zeppelin Controversy: Who Wrote The Songs?

Led Zep A Fans Eye View Rock On! Annual

It is easy now to look at the relative fortunes of the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones – who doubtless regularly bathe in asses milk and feast on panda and swan – with the poor, early blues pioneers who struggled to scrape a living, as evidence that the British bands exploited / stole the blues for their own ends.

However, if you had told Keith Richards in 1961 that fifty years later the biggest risk to his health would be falling out of a coconut tree whilst he slept in a hammock on a Caribbean island – and all as a result of his playing old blues tunes – he might have looked at you with some scepticism. “How do you explain the fact I’m living in a squalid bedsit, Future-boy!” he might have challenged, in the style of Back To The Future’s Doctor Emmet Brown. Clapton and Page were both living with their parents in ’61. There was not yet any defined career path for fame and riches playing this music.

The thing was, blues music was a traditional medium, where folk songs were passed from one generation to another. Until there was a way to record music, it existed only through “word of mouth”.

Copyright effectively privatised what used to be common property. Example: No one could sensibly claim that Simon and Garfunkel wrote the traditional folk song “Scarborough Fair”, but they did in fact copyright the arrangement and they get the royalties every time the song is performed.

Charles Shaar Murray, in his excellent “Boogie Man”, notes that Big Joe Williams almost certainly didn’t write “Baby Please Don’t Go” but gets the royalties because his name is on the credits – making up for all the songs he did write but never got paid for.

Skip James’ funeral expenses were met by the royalties generated by Cream’s cover of “I’m So Glad”, something which Murray notes “says something for Cream’s integrity that they credited him at all especially considering they had rearranged the song so drastically that they could probably have gotten away with claiming it as an entirely new composition”.

Changing the song drastically is what Led Zeppelin did throughout their career, but it hasn’t stopped accusations of plagiarism.

You can’t copyright Bo Diddley’s shuffle (otherwise The Smiths would owe Diddley money for “How Soon Is Now”). You can’t copyright the chord progressions of 12 bar blues, or a particular guitar lick. If someone had, then no bluesman would be able to play anything without a lawsuit being flung in their direction. However, you can copyright words and a melody.

To accuse Led Zeppelin of stealing old songs is missing the point, because the whole raison d’être of Zeppelin was to take old blues songs and interpret them in a completely new way. Those who accuse them of stealing the blues are ignoring the basic traditions of the blues itself. You are on stronger ground, however, if you accuse Led Zeppelin of failing to properly credit the copyright owners of some of those songs (at least initially). It is a matter of record that early pressings of Led Zeppelin II have the credit “The Lemon Song” (Plant/Page) whereas later copies call the song “Killing Floor” (Willie Dixon), which in fact is what it is: a cover of Willie Dixon’s song, which Howlin’ Wolf had done before.

But that isn’t the only example, and it is fun to see just how many blues songs Led Zep have based their music on over the years and what the originals sounded like.

I have therefore created a Spotify Playlist of both the Led Zep versions and the blues songs that they were based on – and I hope you enjoy it. It’s great to dig into these old songs a little. Here’s a more detail:

Led Zeppelin I Turquoise Cover

Led Zep I

  • Babe I’m Gonna Leave You was originally believed to be a traditional song, as cut by Joan Baez and Quicksilver Messenger Service. However, it was later discovered to have been written by ’60’s folk singer Anne Bredon, who was later credited on the Remasters box set.
  • You Shook Me was composed by Willie Dixon and recorded by Muddy Waters. Jeff Beck’s Truth album which was released at a similar time to Led Zep 1 also contains a version (with Rod Stewart on vocals) which is interesting to compare.
  • Dazed and Confused has its roots in “I’m Confused”, a folk song written by Jake Holmes.
  • Black Mountain Side has similarities with Bert Jansch’s Black Water Side.
  • I Can’t Quit You Baby is another Willie Dixon penned tune.
  • How Many More Times: The source for this was “How Many More Years”, written by Howlin’ Wolf, plus there’s a verse from Albert King’s “The Hunter”, and the outro from Beck’s Bolero (also on Jeff Beck’s Truth).

Led_Zeppelin_-_Led_Zeppelin_II

Led Zep II

  • Whole Lotta Love has similarities with Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” and indeed Dixon brought a case against Led Zeppelin which was settled out of court.
  • As mentioned earlier, The Lemon Song references Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor – and later pressings of Led Zep II credited Chester Burnett (Wolf’s real name) as the co-writer, and renamed the song as “Killing Floor” rather than “The Lemon Song”. Robert Johnson sang the line “Squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg” in “Travelling Riverside Blues”. Travelling Riverside Blues is also a non-album Led Zep song that appeared in the remasters and is based upon the same Robert Johnson’s song.
  • Bring It On Home was originally recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson and written by Willie Dixon.

Led-Zeppelin-III

Led Zep III

  • Gallows Pole was recorded as “Gallis Pole” by Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and is a traditional folk tune.
  • Hats Off To (Roy) Harper is based upon “Shake Em On Down” by Bukka White.

Led_Zeppelin_-_Led_Zeppelin_IV

Led Zep IV

  • When The Levee Breaks was based upon a song written by Memphis Minnie and performed by Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy.

Physical Graffiti Led Zeppelin cover

Physical Graffiti

  • Custard Pie has a foundation in “I Want Some Of Your Pie” by Blind Boy Fuller. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee recorded “Custard Pie Blues” in 1947 and Bukka White’s “Shake Em On Down” is quoted in the lyrics. Big Joe Williams recorded a song called “Drop Down Mama” (note Plant’s cry of “Drop Down”).
  • In My Time Of Dying is based upon Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” which also appears on Dylan’s debut album.

Led Zeppelin Presence cover

Presence

  • Nobody’s Fault But Mine: Blind Willie Johnson first recorded this song, which, interestingly is still credited to Plant and Page. Certainly the riff is unique, but there’s more than a passing resemblance.

Next: Blues Song Death Match!



Categories: Blues, Rock Music

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23 replies

  1. “To accuse Led Zeppelin of stealing old songs is missing the point, because the whole raison d’être of Zeppelin was to take old blues songs and interpret them in a completely new way. Those who accuse them of stealing the blues are ignoring the basic traditions of the blues itself.”

    I agree with this and don’t consider Led Zep to be thieves…but they did copyright their music and profit from it highly. They also didn’t always credit the bluesmen they were building upon, which kinda sucks.

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  2. Excellent post. Zeppelin’s been my favorite band for about 35 years, since I was 12. I’ve heard all the accusations of plagiarism from many people, and I’ve often found it hard to argue on behalf of the band for the sole reason that they didn’t give writing credit on the albums until they were forced to. Page has always been a smart man who knows his musical history, so he had to know which writers were getting credit for the songs they were covering/interpreting, but I see these transgressions as merely a small stain on an otherwise brilliant career. Perhaps the missing credits from early albums were the result of naivete or just clerical oversight, but even if there was something more mercenary about it, Zeppelin were among a number of bands who did so much to expose blues to a wider audience. They weren’t the first but they were eventually the biggest, and for that reason (as well as the fact that they made things right with the original writers & publishers) they should be commended.

    I know people who continue to hate Zeppelin because “they knowingly ripped off poor black songwriters,” but your post goes a long way to explaining how they weren’t unique in this respect. I’ll be sure to point Zeppelin’s detractors here in the future. Well done.

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  3. Considering that Peter Grant was their manager, accusing Led Zepplin of not giving credit when it was due probably implicates at least 2 or 3 people who may have wanted to do the right thing in the first place. The 60s were a transformative time for artists and the arrangement of their compensation, and the dust hadn’t settled on who should be paid for what and at what percentage. As I understand it, there was no way Peter Grant wasn’t going to get his clients what he felt they deserved (or more), and it was easy to ignore the contributions of the old blues guys from a financial standpoint, as they had no representation on the same level.

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  4. Several comments here:

    “Clapton and Page were both living with their parents in ’61.”

    Clapton grew up with his grandmother from the time he was two (for a long time he believed his mother to be his older sister).

    No one could sensibly claim that Simon and Garfunkel wrote the traditional folk song “Scarborough Fair”, but they did in fact copyright the arrangement and they get the royalties every time the song is performed.

    Actually, Paul Simon nicked the arrangement from Martin Carthy, and Carthy received nothing for it. They didn’t make up until 1999 or so. (Despite writing some very good music, especially during his time with Garfunkel, Simon has at various times shown rather bizarre character deficiencies. For instance, when a judge at an international youth talent show in South America, he said before it even started that he wouldn’t give any points to the German contestant because of the Holocaust. Not only was the German contestant only 16 at the time, and thus couldn’t have been personally guilty (and saying one inherits guilt from one’s parents is quite close to the type of pseudoscientific genetic racism the Nazis believed in), but she was also a Sinta (as in Sinti and Roma) who lost almost her entire family in the Holocaust (her father had survived four concentration camps). What a dork!)

    I don’t think anyone has ever accused John Mayall, say, of ripping of black blues singers. There is no problem in doing cover versions, even drastically different ones. The problem is not giving credit where credit is due. And if it is traditional, then say it is traditional.

    What I don’t understand is how artists can copyright traditional songs (or songs by poor and/or unknown writers). I don’t think they are copyrighting just their version of it. (Even if they were, if the cover is of a song by a well known artist, then it isn’t copyrighted by the cover artist at all, even if the version is vastly different). Two other guilty musicians: Bob Dylan and Ritchie Blackmore. It wasn’t until I got interested in traditional English music (initially by way of Fairport Convention) that I noticed how man early Dylan tunes were actually traditional, though this isn’t mentioned on Dylan’s albums. (Fairport were always happy to give credit to the prolific Trad Arr.) Ritchie Blackmore does something similar with his traditional Renaissance tunes he records with Blackmore’s Night (sometimes with new lyrics, but he copyrights the music as well).

    If one records Scarborough Fair in something other than a more or less exact copy of the version by Simon and Garfunkel, does Simon get any money? If so, why? (What is novel about the version by Simon and Garfunkel is the second tune song in parallel.)

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    • This is the point I made about how copyright privatised folk music – something that previously was public property. People were able to profit from the songs by copyrighting the arrangement – and yes – if you play Scarborough Fair in the way S&G did it, you should pay them the royalty. It doesn’t seem fair, but there you go…
      Any lawyers out there who want to tell us why it’s okay?

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  5. Blimey, that’s more (alleged) plagiarism than Oasis!

    Shall we just call it inspiration?

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  6. I’m sorry to disagree but this argument doesn’t hold water. The problem is theft, pure and simple, not recreating some existing song anew. This is also, alas, a singularly localized problem. And it’s locale is Great Britain.

    In the States, where the guitarists of the same vintage had access to the musicians, the musicians got the credit. The San Francisco bands almost single-handedly kept Jesse Fuller from starving and the Chicago bands would have taken out anyone misbehaving the way the Zeps and friends did.

    These songs you cite as being done over simply aren’t. When the Levee breaks is merely an amped up ripoff of Memphis Minnie. Nobody’s Fault but MIne is only Blind WIllie Johnson’s. It’s ridiculous to claim otherwise. You don’t get to claim to be blues scholars/aficionados and then behave like this.

    What Zep did is theft. It’s racist. It’s wrong. And it’s particularly British. Here endeth the lesson.

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    • Always good to have an opposing view, and there’s little to be gained from defending the indefensible – where Led Zeppelin has belatedly credited the artists they didn’t previously credit. I’m not entirely in agreement that it is only British artists that play fast and loose with credits, however, as there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. See previous comment about Simon and Garfunkel , Dylan et al, not to mention the dreadful treatment of record company bosses of their Blues (in particular) artists. The book “Hit Men” is especially revealing here, describing how credit for songwriting was taken from Bluesmen and given to family members of the record company bosses, including in one notorious example of a one year old baby…

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    • I agree totally with Tim. Zeps rendition of The Willie Dixon, holmes, blind willie johnson songs is a clear copy. Not crediting the original writer is wrong. No excuses here. Only apologies. But you won’t get any from Plant and Page. Can’t understand how these guys get away with it. Big business is covering up their tracks I assume.

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      • Thanks for the comment, and I think we all agree that writers of songs should be properly credited and paid.
        It’s a bit more complicated than that though.
        For example, the Blind Willie Johnson song you mention (In My Time of Dying) wasn’t actually written by BWJ. He may have stolen it from Rev J C Burnett, who recorded it a year earlier than BWJ, but we don’t know whether Burnett wrote it either. In My Time of Dying was recorded by Bob Dylan, who also didn’t credit BWJ (so not just English artists, then) and Dylan also claimed the arrangement to get the publishing, claiming it as “traditional”, Arrangement Dylan.

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  7. One you missed: “Moby Dick” (Led Zeppelin II). The guitar riff is an almost note-for-note copy of a riff which appears on Bobby Parker’s 1961 single, “Watch Your Step”. Jimmy Page was apparently a fan of Parker’s, and at one point in the 1970s supposedly attempted to sign him to Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. Interestingly, John Lennon also once admitted the same Parker riff had been a big influence on The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”.

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  8. Another: “Boogie With Stu” (Physical Graffiti). The lyrics are borrowed heavily from Ritchie Valens’ 1958 song “Ooh My Head”. The song is credited to “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant/Ian Stewart/Mrs. Valens” (the “Mrs. Valens” refers to the mother of Ritchie Valens). Note: Ritchie Valens’ “Ooh My Head” is itself largely a copy of Little Richard’s 1958 song “Ooh My Soul”…

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  9. Copyright is a funny thing, at least in the US and probably elsewhere. The recording is copyrighted separately from the music publishing. So, a band or record company owns a copyright on their recorded version of a song (subject to royalties), but may not hold copyright on the music itself. Not sure how this worked in Zeppelin’s case. Surely the arrangement was theirs, but lyrics and other aspects may not have been.

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