AS WE WIND ON DOWN THE ROAD – ZEPPELIN AND FOLK

This article continues a feature on the bursting forth of folk influences on Led Zeppelin III.

It uses as a springboard quotes from Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones and looks at albums that would have been important for the musicians as well as those released in the lead-up to the writing of material for the third album.

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“Bert Jansch tied up the acoustic guitar

in the same way Hendrix did the electric”

Jimmy Page (Mojo #77)

When the young Scots guitarist Bert Jansch travelled down to London to connect with the blooming folk culture he was unknown and entirely without worldly resources, sharing a squat in Earl’s Court with singer Anne Briggs during the winter of 1962-63. [Leech, p. 26]

By the time his self-titled debut album appeared in 1965, things had not improved much at all.

“When I made the first album, I had no home and no possessions, not even a guitar. I had to borrow one from Martin Carthy for the recording.” [ibid, p. 26]

He had, however, started forging his own unique style using the radical Davey Graham DADGAD tuning. Just as important was the friendship and fecund musical connection with London folkie and fellow guitarist John Renbourn. Renbourn appears on half the songs on Bert’s 1966 watershed album Jack Orion. The 2001 Sanctuary CD re-release has outstanding notes by author Colin Harper. Zeppelin fans will enjoy this excerpt from the Jack Orion booklet.

“Fellow singer-songwriter Al Stewart had been following Bert around, keenly observing this revolutionary new playing style and determined to master it. A few weeks before Jack Orion appeared, Al had booked a studio and session players to make his own record debut. Jimmy Page, an established sessioner, turned up to play guitar and during a tea-break Al played him Bert’s accompaniment for ‘Blackwaterside’. It was possibly Page’s first acquaintance with the DADGAD tuning.”

The music Jansch and Renbourn were making was often called folk-baroque. This – and other styles – were captured on the Bert and John album released in Autumn 1966. There’s jazz, blues, baroque and an engaging ramshackle energy packed into a very modest 26 minute length.

Later that year, Bert and John would form Pentangle.

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“The places that the Incredible String Band were coming from

were places that we loved very much”

Robert Plant (Mojo #115)

When Robin Williamson and Mike Heron got back together for what could be accurately described as The Incredible String Band Mark II, Heron brought songs that he’d been working on for some time while Williamson brought radical ideas and weird instruments acquired during recent travels in the Middle East. The core idea was “trying to put a number of different musical styles into one piece of music” [Leech, p. 51].

The effort was largely successful and arrestingly different. The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion, released in July 1967, neither looked nor sounded like anything else. A positive review in Melody Maker at the time observed that the album had “almost everything” [ibid, p. 52].

A glass-breaking cocktail of mind-altering music in a vivid package, 5000 Spirits is inviting and irritating, sincere and mischievous, full of ancient magic and sun-shower unpredictability; as trippy as its cover and luscious as bare toes wriggling in mud. If there is a weakness, it is an occasional cloying cuteness that might be too much for a listener decades from the psychedelic 60s counter culture.

Most of the teething troubles of 5000 Spirits were soothed by the time of their next album, career highlight The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. Released in March 1968, this entrancing LP covers an extraordinary range of territory. From the sprawling eclectricity of “A Very Cellular Song” (which is more like a patchwork suite) to the skewed Gilbert and Sullivan of “The Minotaur’s Song”, Hangman has lyrical mysticism, Joe Boyd production, a roomful of instruments and a beguiling otherness. If you value ratings, Allmusic awards it the only 5 star score of the ISB catalogue. Perhaps more persuasively, Robert Plant loved it.

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“I want to do a Pentangle-type thing.”

“We’ve always had this desire to do acoustic things.”

Jimmy Page (Mojo #77)

So Bert and John were playing together. John had done some shows with singer Jacqui McShee after she guested on his varied and highly enjoyable 1966 album Another Monday. A loose trio was forming that grew to a quartet with the addition of highly respected bass player around town, Danny Thompson. When he brought along his mate Terry Cox to add drums and percussion, five precious elements fused into one of the most innovative and influential bands of the 60s (and therefore, of any era).

Those human elements had their parallel in the music: Folk, Blues, Rock, Jazz. Add copious talent and mix tastefully. What was unusual was that they were popular not just in their native British Isles, but internationally. They sold records! Outrageous for a ‘folk’ act.

In the opinion of Vinyl Connection, the entire Pentangle catalogue is essential, but as a place to start, the second album Sweet Child takes some beating. A double album with a sumptuous Peter Blake designed (pentangle) cover, it comprises a first disc of a live performance and a second of studio material.

When it was released in December 1968, Led Zeppelin were playing gigs in the UK and about to head ‘across the pond’ for their US debut. It is tempting to imagine that Sweet Child was enthusiastically devoured on long bus trips that spanned the West Coast to the East Coast, from Chicago to Miami.

It is such a rich double album (augmented generously on the 2001 CD re-issue) that there is little point in singling out specific songs. Suffice to say, it’s all here: dazzling acoustic guitar playing, electric fusions of rock-folk-jazz, captivating vocals from the wonderful Ms McShee. Tradition, innovation, energy, commitment. Sweet Child is a glorious experience. Still.

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“I’d probably learned my first mandolin tunes from

Fairport Convention’s Liege And Leif

John Paul Jones (Mojo #115)

There’s no dispute that Fairport Convention’s Liege And Leif is one of the most loved albums in the folk-rock canon. It regularly appears on ‘Best’ lists (a recent Vinyl Connection discussion of the meaninglessness of ratings is here) and was, I believe, voted most ‘influential’ British folk album of all time. John Paul Jones was doubtless one of many who fell under its spell when it was released in December 1969. The connection with Fairport was furthered when peerless singer Sandy Denny joined Zeppelin for mandolin-driven myth-buster “The Battle of Evermore” on IV.

But before Liege And Leif came Unhalfbricking. Although there is not the clear folk focus that makes Liege so satisfying, its predecessor demonstrates a variety and vitality that offers much. Opening song “Genesis Hall” shows Richard Thompson stretching his song-writing wings while it’s hard to listen to the French version of Dylan’s “If you gotta go, go now” without smiling. “Autopsy” is a brooding Sandy Denny original featuring her penetrating, emotion-laden voice and an understated Thompson solo. Denny’s song-writing also provides album highlight “Who knows where the time goes?”, a song that catches the breath with its soaring melancholic beauty no matter how many times you have heard it. “A Sailor’s Life” is an extended work-out on a traditional song, and points towards the next album. The mood of loss and longing is palpable, subtly underscored by Dave Swarbrick’s violin (he joined Fairport soon after).

If your Fairport experience is thus far limited to Liege and Leif, you could do much worse that acquiring the albums on either side of it.

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An Afterword

Of course we could wander along this road for many a mile. But the goal was never to cover the entirety of the rich and vibrant English folk-rock scene of the mid-to-late 60s but simply to make some links with the albums Messrs Plant and Page were no doubt aware of and listening to in the lead-up to their Welsh odyssey in May 1970. And if you still have doubts, listen to “The Waggoner’s Lad” from Jack Orion then “Gallows Pole” from III. It’s the folk tradition at work. And for mine, whatever the sources, the overt connection with their folk roots made Led Zeppelin a much more interesting band.

Jansch:

Zepp:

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All the albums pictured in this article are recommended.

SOURCES

Sutcliffe, Phil. “Bustle in the Hedgerow” in Mojo: The Music Magazine, #77, Apr 2000

Hoskins, Barney. “Been A Long Tine” in Mojo: The Music Magazine, #115, June 2003

Leech, Jeanette [2010] Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk. Jawbone Press, London

21 comments

  1. Brian Beecham · · Reply

    Well done, Bruce! As I always do when you’ve touched on music/issues close to my heart, I’ll be checking back to see how the readership responds.

    bb

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  2. I had never heard Bert Jansch before and just love him! Thanks for the link! I will be checking out more. Great post.

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    1. That’s brilliant. The core reason for writing is to share music that has touched me – when it reaches out to someone else, that’s the best! Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Another terrific title!
    Nice suggestions – the eponymous Bert Jansch, Basket of Light, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and Unhalfbrickling are on the 1001 list. Thanks for encouraging me to check those ones out sooner rather than later!

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    1. Once one has cracked the code, 60s English folk is a wonderful treasure trove of musical delights. From the weird (ISB) to the dextrous (Bert and John). Look forward to reading what you make of them as time goes by…

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  4. Thank you for this wonderful post – it’s points me to a path that I need to explore.
    (The ignorance I’ve unwittingly acquired over the years might have a purpose after all).

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    1. Well, DD, we’re all adrift in an ocean of ignorance. Thank goodness we can wave at each other.
      But I’m confident that when the ears are attuned, pretty much all this music is a delight. I saved Full House for another post; it contains perhaps my favourite Fairport folk-rock song, “Sloth”.

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  5. This was a great read! I’ve got a lot of love for the artists mentioned here. I’ve been slowly getting into a lot of these bands over the last half-decade or so and it’s been so rewarding. The only band here I’m not familiar with is ISB, but I’m sure I’ll get round to them eventually!

    I got a Davy Graham comp recently and there was an instrumental on there (think it was called She Moves Through the Fair?) that Page had patently “borrowed” from for the White Summer instrumental that Page used to do live with Zep. I was actually a bit taken aback by how similar it was…

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    1. The Incredible String Band are perhaps the most – how could we put this – idiosyncratic of the artists listed here. From the breathtakingly strange and beautiful to the downright twee, they are unique. Interestingly the first album – often ignored – is good too.
      Your other observation is also relevant and interesting. The ‘borrowing’ of ideas, themes, ancient melodies, runs throughout the folk tradition. Is it theft? Paying dues? A valid tradition? A discussion that could run on and on, methinks!

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      1. It’s a difficult subject… Not sure I’d even want to go there haha!

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  6. You’ve covered some great music here…thank you! Bert Jansch is an absolute treasure. He’s rightly recognized for his groundbreaking guitar style, but for me he’s also an extraordinary songwriter and interpreter. “Rosemary Lane” is one of my favorite records ever. In addition to Jimmy Page, Neil Young was heavily inspired by Jansch. “Needle and the Damage Done,” in particular, owes a debt to Jansch.

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    1. With you on Bert Jansch all the way. “Rosemary Lane” was the first Bert album I acquired on CD. Bought it in Wiesbaden, Germany in the mid-90s and still enjoyed.
      “Needle of Death”, from Bert’s self-titled 1965 album, was indeed hugely influential.
      Thanks a lot for reading and your comments.

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    2. Am listening to “Rosemary Lane” for the first time now. Nice one.

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  7. You convinced me to drag out my Pentangle records when I get home. As Richard Thompson has been quite active in the last few years I have spent more time listening to Fairport Convention however you just reminded me that the more adventurous band was Pentangle. Thanks

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    1. A pleasure. The ‘original’ Pentangle discography is small but perfect.

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  8. Wow – some great artists in there. Bert Jansch is one that I haven’t listened to as much as I probably should. My brother got into him a few years back and I’ve always found myself totally hypnotised by his playing, but there’s always been something else I’ve wanted to check out. Guess that’s always the way, right?

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    1. It certainly is. So much music, so little listening time.
      I’m sure you’ll enjoy Bert when you get back to him!

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  9. Never tried any Pentangle, you’ve made me want to.

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    1. You will be bountifully rewarded here on earth.

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  10. […] Next time at Vinyl Connection we’ll discover answers to some Zeppelin questions that have plagued rock scholars for countless seconds… […]

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  11. […] But, alas, none of those plans made it to fruition and the closest John Renbourn came to the feature he richly deserves was the piece exploring Led Zeppelin’s folk influences. […]

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