When he first met Robert Plant, one of the first tunes Jimmy Page told him he wanted to do was a folk song called “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” which he heard on a Joan Baez album. As mentioned in a prior post, Page was (and is) a pretty big Joni Mitchell (and folk music) fan. So in one sense it’s no surprise that he chose a song like this. The only real surprise is how the hell he thought of his arrangement.
To go back a little, in the early ’60’s, Baez heard the song performed by a folk singer named Anne Bredon. (Who also wrote it). Baez recorded it for her 1962 album Joan Baez in Concert. She initially credited it to “Traditional” but on discovering that Bredon wrote it, has since credited it correctly.
Here’s Baez’ version. You may love Zeppelin’s but give this a listen. Her voice makes it more haunting than does Plant’s wailing:
There was a band that formed in the ’60’s called The Association. They were mostly a vocal band and had quite a few pop hits including “Windy,” “Cherish” and “Never My Love.” So, one could fairly say they were a soft-rock band. (I should say ‘are’ as some version of them is still together and does the nostalgia tour circuit. A friend of mine saw them back in their heyday and said they sounded impressively like their records).
One of their early singles – which was not a hit – was “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” They actually do a pretty good job of it, making it more of a pop song without entirely losing the song’s intensity. (In case you’re wondering, folk music hit its peak of popularity around this time. Baez was probably second only to Dylan in terms of her impact in the folk era):
Jimmy Page explained how he adapted the song for Led Zeppelin in Daniel Rachel’s The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters: “I worked out this arrangement using a more finger-style method and then having a flamenco burst in it. Again, it’s light and shade and this drama of accents; using the intensity of what would be a louder section for effect.”
Page has stated that the arrangement originated from his days as an early 1960s session musician; “I used to do the song in the days of sitting in the darkness playing my six-string behind Marianne Faithfull.” Supposedly Faithfull recorded this but if so, I can find no traces of it.
Interesting recording tidbit: At the 1:46 mark of the Zep version, you can hear Plant singing, “I can hear it calling me” just before he sings the same line in full volume. They had re-recorded over the tape and so this was a bleed from Plant’s scratch vocal. Page liked the effect so he left it in:
As I think is all too well-known, Zep were sometimes loose with crediting others for songs. This was discovered and rectified in the ’90’s so Bredon has gotten royalties for some time now.
Sources: Songfacts, Wikipedia, Rolling Stone magazine