Track of the Week: “Traveling Riverside Blues,” by Led Zeppelin

Track of the WeekLed Zeppelin has dozens of great tunes, which makes them a well-spring of blues-rock inspiration. No song captures their blues heritage more than “Traveling Riverside Blues.”

“Traveling Riverside Blues” was originally written by the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Led Zeppelin recorded this loose interpretation of the song in 1969. Zeppelin changed the main riff and altered the lyrics to include lines from other classic blues tunes. Most importantly, Zeppelin imbued “Traveling Riverside Blues” with their uniquely dark style and rock flavor. Using an electric guitar tuned to an open G chord, Jimmy Page plays tribute to Robert Johnson with the song’s main riff while Robert Plant sings the lyrics with his distinctly powerful voice. Together, Page and Plant took Johnson’s original ho-hum version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” (below) and made it into something absolutely magical.

For you blues purists out there, all I can say is that I’m not backing down from my last comment. I’m sorry, but it’s true: Robert Johnson’s version is ho-hum. It features a terrible recording and a blah performance. But relax, I don’t blame Johnson for that any more than I’d blame a single-celled organism for being so, well, single-celled. Johnson’s music was at the beginning of the evolutionary chain. He was using primitive rhythms, harmonies, melodies, instruments and recording tools to create his music. American music as we know it had to start somewhere and it started with Robert Johnson. But since he was the first, Johnson had no metaphorical shoulders to stand on — he was the shoulders.

Drive a Model-T Ford and tell me it’s better than any piece of junk car you can find on the road today. It’s not. But it was the first significant automobile and Johnson was the first significant blues musician. For that I pay homage. But don’t tell me Robert Johnson’s version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” is better than Led Zeppelin’s version. It’s not.

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