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May 25, 2005

Songs for a Desert Island VII

The seventh selection in my "Songs for a Desert Island" series will not focus on the lyrics. This is a break from tradition as most of the time it is the lyrics of a song I am most enamored with. What is the lyricist trying to say? What kind of meaning is hidden inside? Today's selection doesn't focus on the lyrics because, quite frankly, in this song it is difficult to understand what the singer is saying. This song has been chosen because of its aura, or the mystery surrounding the song (not to mention some really, really good music). The seventh selection for my Songs for a Desert Island is:robert_johnson.jpg

"Travelling Riverside Blues" by Led Zeppelin

I know what you are thinking: of all the songs by Led Zeppelin, why this one? What makes this one so special? Again, there is a certain aura around this song that cannot be denied. I challenge you to listen to Page's opening slide guitar work and not be immediately drawn in. This is the epitome of the trademark Led Zeppelin "hard" blues sound, also featured in such gems as "I Can't Quit You Baby" and "You Shook Me." Songs that are unmistakably blues oriented, but that also exude the crunch and puissance traditionally found in Led Zeppelin's work. What makes this song even more special though is that it is Led Zeppelin's homage to perhaps the most influential blues artist of the 20th century: Robert Johnson.

I would be surprised if you have never heard of Robert Johnson. Johnson's influence on rock music, especially rock music created during the 60s and 70s, is impossible to overstate. Cream, the Blues Project, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers ... the list goes on and on of artists influenced by his work. Even Bob Dylan recognized Johnson's impact on his career (check out the cover of "Bringing it All Back Home"). Yet what is most remarkable about this is the fact that Johnson only recorded 29 songs, and only 12 of those songs were released during his lifetime. Needless to say, it is doubtful he repead the benefits of his fame while he was alive. What then can account for his longevity?

Adding to his aura is the rumor that Robert Johnson sold is soul to the devil for his guitar playing prowess. Apparently Johnson started out as a pretty crappy guitar player. In an attempt to get better, Johnson studied guitar with Ike Zinnerman in 1931, who said that Johnson learned how to play guitar while sitting on tombstones in a graveyard. According to legend, Johnson got so good so fast that it was openly speculated he sold his soul. Others add to the myth that Johnson sold his soul in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49. Others say it was in Rosedale at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8. This may be corroborated in one of Johnson's most famous songs, "Travelling Riverside Blues," where he sings:

"Lord, I'm goin' to Rosedale, gon' take my rider by my side."

Whatever the case, it makes me wonder just what kind of a bargain he got for selling his soul. Legend has it that he was killed by poisoned whiskey, given to him by the husband of a woman he was showing too much affection towards. So, he sells his soul, records only 29 scratchy songs of questionable quality, and he is poisoned to death. As with most bargains with the devil, this one appears to have been a pretty raw deal for the human making the bargain. Most likely, though, the bargain was to make Johnson famous. And he is most definitely famous. Did the devil live up to his end of the deal? Maybe he did ...

Back to Zeppelin's cover of "Travelling Riverside Blues." Zeppelin's version is actually at least a couple of songs by Robert Johnson put together, including "Travelling Riverside Blues" and "Kind Hearted Woman Blues." Plus, it seems, Robert Plant has made up a few lyrics of his own. Again, that is what makes this unmistakably a blues song and a Led Zeppelin song all at the same time. Page's guitar work is fantastic as usual, highlighted by his slide work and his understated solo. Jones's baseline drives the rhythm forcefully and complements Page's lead beautifully, while Bonham's drums always seem to pound away at the perfect moment. Drumming for a blues song is definitely a challenge due this genre's penchant for changing tempo and Bonham was one of the best. The entire song really is a work of beauty, especially considering it was recorded live in the studio at the BBC.

I won't get into the lyrics too much because really they aren't that interesting and Plant takes turns moaning, shrieking, and warbling them in mostly an incomprehensible fashion. One part of the lyrics, though, that Plant made sure he sang with clarity was this stanza which I think says a lot about both Led Zeppelin and the blues in general:

Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice runs down my leg
Squeeze it so hard, I'll fall right out of bed
Squeeze my lemon, 'til the juice runs down my leg
I wonder if you know what I'm talkin' about
Oh, but the way that you squeeze it girl
I swear I'm gonna fall right out of bed

Hmmm ... yes, I think I do know what you are talking about. This is a stanza that Robert Plant did not make up. It is a part of Johnson's original version of "Travelling Riverside Blues" and as overtly sexual as it is today, it must have been eye-popping back in the 30s. But this is what the blues were about: love, sex, loneliness, relationships, disappointment. The blues were a microcosm of the human condition, especially in terms of the African-Americans that wrote the original masterpieces. Robert Johnson certainly wasn't afriad to tell it like it is and because of that his music has stood the test of time.

I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan in high school, and my friends and I thought this stanza was subversively delicious. Being the horny teenagers that we were (sorry mom), we quickly becamed so enamored with this lyric that we decided to act upon it. And no, not in the way you are thinking. We decided to "borrow" a street sign. Today I fully realize how stupid this was, especially considering what kinds of fines we risked just to get the stupid thing, but "borrow" that street sign we did. And I don't know if they've replaced the sign at the corner of Lemon Way and Prince of Wales Drive, but I'm sure they were surprised they had to. Pretty stupid, I agree. But sometimes a great song makes you do stupid things.

So, there you have it: "Travelling Riverside Blues" by Led Zeppelin. A song of mystery, aura, great musicianship, and it makes teenagers do things they'll regret as an adult. All in all, a great song for me to listen to on my desert island. Until next time...

Posted by snackeru at May 25, 2005 6:53 AM


The "B" side to the Immigrant Song single!! I was so close. And just as I said yesterday, I started kicking myself as I was reading the post. The instrumental interplay between Page, Bonham, and Jones is outstanding on this song. A truly worthy choice. As to the road sign in question, Shane didn't want it when he moved out after sophomore year, so it's sitting out in my parents tool shed back on the farm. I predict, however, that the sign will make an appearance, probably for Shane's 40th birthday!!

Curt in Grand Forks

Posted by: Curt Hanson at May 25, 2005 8:22 AM

From Virginia Beach, VA to a toolshed in Aldrich, MN. Amazing! You know, there are probably some pictures of our dorm room with that sign in them. I'm going to try to dig some up.

Posted by: Shane at May 25, 2005 9:11 AM

I have the Robert Johnson collection. Some fantastic stuff. Not something you sit down and listen to over and over, but something you keep like a sacred relic.

I've you've ever listened to Love in Vain on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, you can appreciate not only Johnson's music, but the Stones' adulation of him. Also, the Stones cover "Stop Breaking Down" on the classic "Exile on Main Street" album.

And, like you say, Led Zep borrowed HEAVILY from Johnson.

Posted by: SBG at May 25, 2005 10:06 AM

Of course, Love in Vain was first recorded (by the Stones) on the greatest album of all time, Let it Bleed. And, I meant If you've, not i've you've above.

Posted by: SBG at May 25, 2005 10:09 AM

Ah Shane, I'm smiling as I write this; the things a mother finds out! If that's the worst you did (and biased mother that I am, I don't think there is much else you did)I think I can handle it! ha
I might as well get real sappy and say that you're a terrific son and I'm very proud of you...

Posted by: mom at May 25, 2005 12:34 PM

Hello!?!? Why no mention of "Me And Mr.Johnson" in which Eric Clapton covers 14 of the 29 songs Johnson wrote and recorded in his lifetime? For fans of deep blues,it doesn ít get any better than this.

This CD has been in my "hot stack" ever since I received it in April for my BD.

As far as this Zeppelin thread....I rate all of Zep's records within very narrow limits (two and a half to four stars). The simple reason is that the band had an extraordinarily consistent sound, and that's not a compliment. As I mentioned previously, I put down 'Hot Dog' as one of my favorite Zep tracks simpyl because it deviates from the usual stuff they offered. I still appreciate their music...so I hope I can still be part of the Shane Possee!

Posted by: Brian Maas at May 25, 2005 2:48 PM

Interesting comment, COD. I'm not sure I agree. LZ I is a much heavier record than LZ II. LZ I had a lot of slow tempoed songs (You Shook Me, Dazed and Confused, Your Time is Gonna Come). LZII, while it has the over the top Whole Lotta Love, employs a lot more uptempo numbers like Ramble On, which includes a very interesting percussion line. LZIII is quite a departure from I and II and the band was criticized for it, but I think it has gotten better with age.

Houses of the Holy was definitely not a repeat of IV. Physical Graffitti is a double album that is really two distinctive albums.

But, yes, they played music primarily from one genre, heavy metal rock or whatever you want to call it, that they pretty much invented.

Posted by: SBG at May 25, 2005 4:19 PM

Brian, you may not want to be a part of my posse after you hear this, but I haven't heard Clapton's "Me and Mr. Johnson" so I cannot speak intelligently on it. I do enjoy "From the Cradle" though so I'm sure "Me and Mr. Johnson" is stellar also. Anyway, that is why I limited my Clapton name dropping to Cream.

Now to your rather egregious comment concerning the genius that is Led Zeppelin. Back in high school I would have considered this to be high treason, and I would have vehemently argued with you to the contrary. But now ... while I still think you are crazy, I welcome your opinion and I'm glad that you took the time to share.

SBG has already done a nice job discussing the sound of Led Zeppelin and the different styles emplyed on their albums, but let me just reiterate. Zeppelin III is waaaay different than Zeppelin II. And In Through the Out Door sounds like a different band completely. Whenever I play "Fool in the Rain" for people, they are just stunned that it is Led Zeppelin. Anyway, most of their music may be "consistent" ... consistently kick ass that is. But I can understand if they are not for you.

I still think they should play the "Immigrant Song" during Vikings games. It is a tragedy that they don't do this already. This will be my first request to Zygi.

Posted by: Shane at May 25, 2005 4:28 PM

What? Is the infamous Shane's Possee falling apart? Ironic that they would fall apart like a rock band over, well, a rock band.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at May 25, 2005 4:47 PM

The Posse is strong. A little Zep discussion is not enough to break it up.

I like the idea of the Immigrant Song at games.

We come from the land of the ice and snow,
from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.

The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands, to fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!"

Posted by: SBG at May 25, 2005 4:56 PM

Of course, as I mentioned before, Let it Bleed is the be-all and end-all.

Posted by: SBG at May 25, 2005 4:59 PM

Yeah, the Shane Posse ain't no 'Walker-Favre' feud. Solid, baby. That's what we is, solid.

And the 'Immigrant Song' certainly could be a viable song to be used at the MetroDome for the soon-to-be-Super-Bowl-champion Vikings. For far too long the Vikes have 'borrowed' songs from other teams. 'Welcome to the Jungle' was stolen from the Bengals, for instance. The Vikes need to lead in the music department, not follow. Hell, the Vikes will lead every NFL statistical category (except losses...that will be the Packers) this season so why not lead in music as well!?!?

Posted by: Brian Maas at May 26, 2005 6:37 AM

I really wanted the Vikes to draft Mike Nugent, and use Ted Nugent's Stranglehold as the song before kickoffs!! I don't know for sure, but that might have made them a leader. But now the Jets get that choice...

Posted by: Moss at May 26, 2005 7:02 AM

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