The Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien is inescapable. With both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he created a self-contained world so rich and full of detail that it feels entirely real. Sweeping the globe as part of his cultural crusade, Tolkein’s words can be seen, heard and felt all around us.
Arguably, Tolkien created that secondary world as a way of escaping the destructive tendencies of his own. Having lost all of his friends to the bullets and barbed wire of the first world war, Tolkien used Middle Earth as a vehicle to craft a new mythology, one with the ability to renew his shattered belief in the chivalric and noble qualities of man.
It is this subversive quality of Tolkien’s work that, even if they didn’t realise themselves, likely resonated with so many musicians throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Tolkien’s books, like the counterculture movement of that era, criticise the modern world’s wanton destruction of natural resources, the erosion of human freedom, and the corrupting influence of absolute power.
Tolkien’s books took on a biblical power throughout the hippie age, and in these tracks, we see how much they influenced some of the era’s most influential musical artists. So, polish your staffs, put on your jerkins, and join me as we look at the five greatest songs that reference the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The 5 greatest musical references to J.R.R. Tolkien:
‘Ramble On’ – Led Zeppelin
Both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were avid readers of J.R.R. Tolkien, so it comes as no surprise that references to the writer’s alternative world of elves and orcs crop up throughout Led Zeppelin’s discography. Perhaps the most obvious example is ‘Ramble On’ from Led Zeppelin II.
In the track, released in 1969, Plant takes us on a journey to “the darkest depths of Mordor”, where the narrator becomes bewitched by a woman with flowing fair hair. He is so bewitched, in fact, that it quickly becomes apparent ‘Ramble On’ is less an ode to Tolkien’s Middle Earth as it is to the elven hotties that Plant imagines reside there. Led Zeppelin would go on to reference Tolkien’s work in ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and ‘The Battle Of Evermore’
‘I Think I Understand’ – Joni Mitchell
Whilst, on the surface, the Tolkien references in this song might seem abstract at best, Joni Mitchell introduced it at the 1969 Mississippi River Festival by saying: “a few years ago I read a trilogy by an Englishman named Tolkien. It left a big impression on me because there are so many different ways that you can read your own things into it… and get your own hope and light and everything from it.”
In the track, Mitchell zooms in on the scene in which the elven queen Galadriel gives a vile of light to Frodo with the advice, “take this vial and whenever you’re in a dark place take it out”. Mitchell went on to say: “Well, being into metaphors a lot myself I decided that what she probably was giving them was a memory of a beautiful time and with that interpretation and her hope and her memory, well… I borrowed a phrase from him… ‘the wilderland’ which was a place they had to go through. And the wilderland is just like it sounded, it’s a wilderness and full of all kinds of hoary monsters and things, just like life.”
‘Rivendell’ – Rush
Like Mitchell, Rush’s Neil Peart was an avid reader. He must have burned through Tolkien because, by the mid-1970s, references to The Lord Of The Rings were springing up all over the place.
Nowhere is the influence of Tolkien more evident than in 1975’s ‘Rivendell’, a song named after the elven city where Lord Elrond dwells and where the fellowship of the ring is formed. The next year, Peart wrote ‘The Necromancer’, which is the name Gandalf gives to Sauron in The Hobbit
‘The Wizard’ – Black Sabbath
Recorded around the time Led Zeppelin were mixing ‘Ramble On’, Black Sabbath’s ‘The Wizard’ makes obvious reference to Tolkien’s messianic grandpa, Gandalf. The Grey Wizard and Black Sabbath may not be obvious bedfellows, but the heavy metal heroes make it work.
Geezer Butler was reading The Lord Of The Rings when Black Sabbath were writing their first album, and so the lyrics to this track are filled with slightly cringy vignettes of the immortal character. Notable examples include: “Evil powers disappear/demons worry when the wizard is near.” I love the idea of demon’s worrying, don’t you?
‘The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins’ – Leonard Nimoy
It doesn’t get more flagrant than this. I’d love to say that ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins’ is less literal than the name suggests, but I’m afraid that would be a lie. The song, composed by Charles Randolph Grean, is a mind-bending and bizarre novelty song that begins with the lines: “In the Middle of the Earth/ In the land of Shire/ Lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire.”
The song was forgotten for a long time, but in a 2003 interview with Nimoy, it was mentioned in reference to Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings adaptations.
Nimoy laughed in response and explained that he no longer knew where the original master tapes were hidden. “I’m not looking for a wave of Leonard Nimoy Hobbit songs all over the world. I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” he concluded.