19 August 2021

More Fun With Plagiarism — Led Zeppelin Edition

In case you were wondering what this post will really be about.

On August 2nd, fellow Sleuthsayer Steve Liskow posted a wonderful piece on plagiarism (Take a moment and go read it here.). And like all of Steve's well-written pieces on this platform, it really got me thinking.

As a fellow writer with a long tenured day-gig teaching at the secondary level, I too have a ton of stories about plagiarism. And with the advent of the internet, the instances of student plagiarism that pop up and slap me in the face when reviewing their work have, if anything, increased tenfold. 

And half the time these days, kids don't even bother to change the font of what they lift from other sources. It's literally just a search/highlight/double right-click deal.

Part of my job (I teach 8th grade) is to help students wrap their heads around the notion of original versus plagiarized work. And in their defense, they start my class aged around thirteen. Most of them have rarely, if ever, heard the "P" word before. So I spend quite a lot of time working on it with them. And as I point out over and over and over throughout the year: I am MUCH more interested in reading their original, unfiltered thoughts on what we're studying than those of someone they copied and pasted (usually wildly out of context).

After using his experiences catching out plagiarizers as a teacher for an introduction, Steve pivots and does a terrific job of laying out the case that former First Lady Melania Trump heavily (and notoriously) plagiarized a speech from her predecessor, former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page (right) of Led Zeppelin

From there he moves on to rock band Led Zeppelin and the case for their having plagiarized the intro to their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus", an instrumental piece by American rock band Spirit, who toured with Zeppelin right before they recorded Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which "Stairway to Heaven" appears. Spirit these days is probably best known as the band that produced singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson, who went on to compose the theme music for hit TV comedy The Office.

Did Spirit steal from The Duke?
Steve is convinced by the argument that Zeppelin ripped off Spirit. I have to respectfully disagree, and I cite music producer and YouTube giant Rick Beato, who does a better job than I ever could of defending the notion that while the two pieces are written in the same key, if Zeppelin stole their intro from Spirit, then Spirit stole from a whole bunch of writers who came before, including the Beatles and Duke Ellington. You can hear his argument here. It's worth watching. Beato even makes the case that employing this standard across popular music would mean insisting that Eric Clapton stole from bluesman Robert Johnson, who in turn stole from Mozart.

As a long-time fan of Zeppelin’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Steve charitably neglected to mention many of Zeppelin's other cases of outright thievery, both proven and unproven. There's no question that musically (and especially lyrically) these guys were thieves. Just a few of the more egregious cases:

1. “Whole Lotta Love”/“You Need Love” by bluesman Willie Dixon who gets co-writing credits on the song after suing in 1985 (The linked version above is Muddy Waters' classic version of Dixon's song.).

2. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” - this one is Joan Baez’s fault. The folk-singer covered it on a 1962 live album (I think her version is too showy, with her voice on it too high and "bright." If you'd care to judge for yourself, you can listen to it here), and rather than crediting the original author Anne Bredon, Baez credited it as “traditional.” So Zeppelin did too. Years later, when Bredon got wind of the cover (apparently she didn’t listen to hippie psychedelic blues-rock in 1969) she and Zeppelin agreed to splitting the royalties 50/50. I like to think she got a nice fat royalties check when Pink released her own scorching live cover of the song. Bredon only just recently passed away (aged 89 in 2019).

3. “Dazed and Confused” - Steve cited this one, and rightly, so, but I feel like it needs expanding upon. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page clearly stole this song from folksinger Jake Holmes after Holmes opened for Page’s then-band the Yardbirds in 1967. The lyrics were reworked, but it was clearly Holmes’s song. And what's more Page stole it twice. Here's an earlier version he did with the Yardbirds live on French TV shortly before they broke up. Listening to both versions in order makes it painfully clear how much Robert Plant's voice is an upgrade over Keith Relf's. Holmes never bothered to seek damages or a co-author credit. He repeatedly said that he enjoyed their new take on his original.

English folk singer Roy Harper
4. "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" - Where to begin? The final song from Led Zeppelin III is a bouillabaisse of lifted influences. It's intended as a tribute to English folk singer and friend of the band, Roy Harper. Harper is probably best known either for serving as a frequent opening act for Zeppelin, or for subbing in for Roger Waters and singing lead on Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar", from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. According to Jimmy Page in an interview with Melody Maker, "This came about from a jam Robert and I had one night. There is a whole tape of us bashing different blues things. Robert had been playing harmonica through the amp, then he used it to sing through. It's supposed to be a sincere hats off to Roy because he's really a talented bloke, who's had a lot of problems."

Bluesman Bukka White
But the song itself is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces lifted from country-blues classics, mostly Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down", (from which Plant pulled the majority of the lyrics) and another version of the song (same name, similar refrain, different verse lyrics and different melody) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose melody Page used for the bottle-neck guitar part he played for this song. Other influences include a verse from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me", and two verses lifted verbatim from "Lone Wolf Blues", by Oscar Woods.

5. "In My Time of Dying" - Zeppelin's longest studio recording, and the centerpiece of its masterpiece Physical Graffiti, this song is pretty much another case of outright theft. The website for the psychedelia-based podcast "Turn Me On, Dead Man" lays out the least confusing lineage for this blues classic, including Zeppelin's crediting the song to its four members as the writers:

Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and [Lovin' Spoonful frontman] John Sebastian cited [Bluesman] Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.

The legendary Robert Johnson
The above examples (and there are many others) demonstrate that, as with many popular music acts during the mid-to-late 20th century, Led Zeppelin indulged in the all-too-common mindset of it being "easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." And the notion that "everyone was doing it" doesn't really wash. 

Again, I say this as an unabashed fan of the band's stuff. They did amazing work. I just wish, as someone who generates original ideas, writes them down, and (occasionally) gets paid for them, that they had gone about crediting where credit (and dollars) was due in the right way.

What's most frustrating is that Zeppelin was not incapable or, in some cases, unwilling, to credit their original sources. Their scorching 1969 BBC Session live cover of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", carries the correct credits. Many of their other songs, which ought to, do not.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch Celebration Day, the concert film of Zeppelin's one-off reunion at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Hey, they're thieves, but I'm still  a fan!

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jason Bonham (original drummer John Bonham's son), Jimmy Page–2007

Thanks again to Steve Liskow for the inspiration for this post!

See you in two weeks!


  1. Great post, Brian (and thanks for more credit than I deserve). Actually, when we realize that there are only 12 notes in western music, it's nigh on impossible at this stage of the game not to be copying from SOMETHING. The early blues singers recycled lyrics and licks all the time. How many songs can you think of where someone has "a worried mind?"

    Deep Purple's "Highway Star" uses a Bach progression for Jon Lord's organ solo, and they said so. Bach won't mind. Some chord progressions work so well that there are thousands of songs using them. Impossible to be original there.

    Many of the 60s garage bands borrowed words and music too. That was how many of the kids learned to play: off the records. Remember Martin Mull's novelty song "It's Just Licks Off Records That I've Learned?" He used "Wipeout," "Secret Agent Man," "Day Tripper," and several other licks every aspiring guitar slinger in my dormitory struggled to get right. I read somewhere that Clapton's solo in "Sunshine of Your Love" borrows a line from "Shine On, Harvest Moon." I don't remember it, but it's not impossible.

    The first time I heard "It's Cold Outside" by The Choir, the chorus sounded like a sped-up version of "Stand By Me," which features one of those classic cliche chord progressions.

    I love this stuff. I even used an allegedly plagiarised song for the main plot point in "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma." Lucky for me, you can't copyright a title, or I'd be in real trouble, too.

    How many other songs can we come up with?

    1. The most famous recent example was Sam Smith settling out of court with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne over his lifting the melody for "Stay With Me" from their song "I Won't Back Down." It's a slower beat, but nearly a note-for-note remake.

      Petty was gracious about it, just wanting to get a co-writer credit and a paycheck. He and Lynne got both.

  2. Oh, I'm still a fan of Led Zeppelin's, too. Nothing like "Whole Lotta Love" to get you moving down the highway at a very quick pace.
    And Steve's right - there's been so much music over so much time that it's almost impossible to write a wholly unplagiarized song. Think of all the folk music that went into Jethro Tull? The jazz licks - and folk licks - in various songs by Traffic?
    And, if you're going to do anything with blues, it's a flip of a coin if you're copying Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell, and WTFK which copied the other? M
    Just listening to the music. Lining up Statesboro Blues right now. The only question, what version?

    1. That Allman Brothers version from "Live at the Fillmore East" is a world-beater. Duane's bottleneck slide, Gregg's vocal? Pounding doubled up drums? Magic. Or, if you prefer, voodoo.

  3. Eve, just to add to the confusion, I have a songbook of blues standards that (Correctly) credits Statesboro Blues to Willie McTell, but uses the lyrics and arrangement from the Allman Brothers Live At Fillmore East...

  4. I was fortunate to see Led Zeppelin in 1973 at the Lone Star Stadium in San Antonio. My seat was too close to the speakers though ... I screamed at everybody for a couple of days after the concert!!! LOL

    Someone accused the singer Olivia Rodrigo from stealing a riff from Elvis Costello. But he didn't really care: https://tinyurl.com/6fv5sjpv

    1. Elizabeth, I saw Led Zep at Yale Bowl in 1970 when III had just been released. They played for over 2 1/2 hours, and at one point, Plant hit a note, and when everyone else dropped out, his voice echoed through downtown New Haven. We all looked at each other and said, "Holy Sh*&t!" Thieves or not, they were terrific musicians and put on a helluva show.

  5. Bob Gibson (a big influence on Phil Ochs and a lesser one on Dylan) talked about his surprise to learn that a certain song was copyrighted as having been written by the members of a certain folk band (I can't recall which one), two years after he recorded it, listing it as Trad.

  6. When I had the money, I lived at the Fillmore East with its psychedelia swirly movie screen, no matter what was actually playing.

    I remain unconvinced Led Zeppelin didn't lift measures from Spirit's Taurus. The key (A-minor) doesn't concern me, but phrases do. The first hint starts about 45 seconds in and become really clear after 1:35 or so. But frankly I love that we can enjoy debating this.

    Here's another viewpoint:

  7. I don't believe I've heard that Joan Baez version before. I have to agree with you it's too 'bright'– it's almsot penetrating.

    Britain's beloved Kate Bush affects me the same way, even more so, nails on a chalkboard. While I admire Bush's songwriting, I'd rather hear Hayley Westenra seductively sing Wuthering Heights.

    And then there's Grace Slick.

    Sorry, Brian. I wandered waaaay off the reservation.

  8. Brian, check out David Bromberg's version of "Statesboro Blues" - not nearly as electric, but God is it fun!


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