Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Yer Blues

The Smithsonian magazine has an article on The Blues.

“Some of these fans were musicians themselves, and they turned the stripped-down music into arena rock, complete with extended guitar solos. This raised new questions: When Led Zeppelin sings “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or Jack White plays a resonator guitar, can it be called the blues?


As a Jack White superfan pointed out to me this morning, Jack White has only once been seen playing a resonator, and that was on a fan-only paid website. And Babe I’m Gonna Leave You isn’t a blues song. It doesn’t pretend to be a blues song, doesn’t sound like a blues song, and wasn’t written as a blues song. 

Hard to believe, but Led Zeppelin recorded it 48 years ago. If you take ‘pre-war’ as a blues landmark, it’s from much closer to 1940 than it is to the present day. Similarly, “When Led Zeppelin sings” is a daft statement, since they haven’t sung it since the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in June 1969. And given all that, it’s a much older song still, first known to be performed by the folk singer Anne Bredon in the 1950s. She taught it to her friend Janet Smith, who continued to perform it at Hootenannies, until it was picked up by folkie Joan Baez and recorded in 1962. When introducing the song to singer Robert Plant, Jimmy Page only knew of Joan Baez's version, which at that time was credited to Trad. Arr. (traditional-arranged-by). He assumed it was traditional folk music and took credit for it. Bredon's writing credit was added to the Led Zeppelin track in the 80's. Since then, she’s received half the royalties for the song. 

There's no available recording of Anne Bredon, but Joan Baez’s version from 1964 is widely available. It’s folk music. Greenwich Village, Great Folk Scare folk music, as is Barbara Muller’s 1964 version from her album Double Premiere. There’s no it-sounds-Appalachian-we-could-assume-slaves-incorporated-it-into-their-field-hollers ambiguity about it; it’s an ordinary folk song that otherwise-normal New Yorkers sang. Led Zeppelin’s version is folk music, with added Spanish flamenco-style guitar and rasgueado-like flourishes. The odd version out is the you-could-call-it-R&B version by The Plebs from 1964, who also credited it as Trad. Arr. 

If you were going to pick an early Led Zeppelin song to point at and say “Is this really authentic blues music?” wouldn’t you pick Since I’ve Been Loving You? Or the us-versus-them (grinning)-in-your-face dirt of Bring It On Home? Or any of half a dozen other tracks? Personally, I wouldn't have picked Led Zeppelin at all. I would have picked a band that’s actually performed some music in the last thirty years. (O2 doesn’t count – not the original members.) 

The article reminds me of the one everyone was up in arms about yesterday. An Omni article promising ten under-rated Science Fiction authors we should look out for, it comprised ten of the most lauded, most well-known, most awarded and long-time-ago science fiction authors around. Journalists these days!
Led Zeppelin official video:

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