Travelling Riverside Blues

I am all in favor of covers. Contemporary artists, I’m ready for one of you to make a genuinely scary “Shout at the Devil” or to show us that there’s a sultry soul side to “Breakin’ the Law” that can be coaxed out with enough talent.

The Redheaded Kid does not like Led Zeppelin, which I think is an indication that the Redheaded Kid has no taste. And yet, I tend to agree with him on the awesomeness of Alice in Chains, so I’m not sure what his deal is.

When Led Zeppelin comes up, I always think of “Travelling Riverside Blues,” which is absolutely my favorite Led Zeppelin song and I think showcases so much of what I enjoy about them as a band. Yes, of course, I enjoy them reworking an old Robert Johnson tune.

But man, I really love this arrangement. Just take the first, oh, for seconds. If you ever, ever wondered what “he could play the guitar just like ringing a bell” and you are somehow immune to Chuck Berry, lord almighty, you can hear it here. Now, there’s absolutely no shame in listening to any Led Zeppelin song once through just so that you can have a private shudder over the deliciousness of Robert Plant’s voice. Why do you think Canada has never invaded England and overthrown them? Because every time anyone even gets an inkling of a notion to do so, England just turns on some Led Zeppelin and all Canadians have to excuse themselves for a few minutes so that they can go masturbate privately. During that time, England slashes their tires. It’s totally true. You can look it up on the internet and read all about it, at this very site (Like how it pays to read multiple posts here? I totally Ron-Ramsey-ed you just now.).

Robert Plant should put out a sexy lullabies for grown-ups album.

But where were we?

Right, so the guitar comes in here at the very beginning almost sounding literally like a ringing bell. And really, the most interesting part of this song, to me, is that there’s that high tinny guitar sound that’s going to carry through the whole time and then there’s a lower, richer guitar sound that seems to be on the same team as the bass. So, instead of the string section of the band being divided into “guitar” and “bass,” it’s divided into “high tinny part” and “walking notes.” You can really hear how it works right about the fourteen second mark. There’s the high tinny part being all “dooo dooodle oo do do d’do doo doodle ooo.” And then the “walking” part, voiced by the guitar goes down the scale-one, tw0, three, four, five, six. And then the bass joins in and echoes the high tinny “doo doodle oo” and walks down the scale.

And then, for like the whole verse, the musical melody is handled by the bass. The guitar is just adding tinny accent notes. And then the bass and guitar parts twine back around each other. I think you can hear the heavy, heavy influence of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” in there (which they also liberally, um, borrowed from for “The Lemon Song” lyrically and sonically, which you also should spend a lot of time listening to and enjoying the bass, but fair warning, there will come a moment when your knees will shake and your face will flush unbidden when Plant and Page… um… well… you’ll see).

The past is all people ripping each other off. And some of it is not cool, to put it mildly. Led Zeppelin is all love and theft (to steal a phrase). But I feel like, if you love the things they stole, too, it makes it okay to love them. Ha, at least, that’s the deal I’ve made with myself.

To that end, I invite you to go listen to Johnson’s original, which sounds a whole lot different. You’ve got to be a good minute and eighteen seconds into the song before you’ll even hear a lyric you recognize. But check out Johnson’s guitar work. There’s that tinny high part and, even in the low-quality YouTube version, you can hear a lower some hints of that bass part doing some really interesting things. Listen especially when Johnson starts talking about his Brown Point rider. And just wait for him to start talking about his lemon. It’ll make it seem like this song and “Killing Floor” fathered half of Led Zeppelin’s oeuvre.

5 thoughts on “Travelling Riverside Blues

  1. For that matter, Robert J is basically doing a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin” himself in that one, a lot like he used also on “If I Had Possession..” and the riff was already a Delta standard by then. So Led Zep would have known a variety of recordings of THAT to play with, including other Johnson takes–which I think are reflected there..

    Anyway, a nice description of what got to you, ma’am..

  2. “But I feel like, if you love the things they stole, too, it makes it okay to love them. Ha, at least, that’s the deal I’ve made with myself.”

    If you stop requiring artists to live up a particular standard of morality, then you don’t have to make these deals with yourself. You can just relax and enjoy.

  3. I don’t know if you watch “Supernatural”, but “Travelling Riverside Blues” is Dean’s favorite song. Tied with “Ramble On”, of course. :-)

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