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Music

The two Led Zeppelin songs Jimmy Page "pinched" from a Scottish folkie

@SamWKemp

The line between theft and flattery is incredibly thin. While some artists regard mimicry as a natural part of musical evolution, others aren’t so philosophical. The question of inspiration also becomes much more complicated when the artist accused of thievery has a higher profile than the artist they’ve stolen from, something Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page knows all too well.

Consider Ed Sheeran, for example. The singer recently won a court battle against two grime artists (Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue), who alleged the pop star stole one of their tracks and turned it into his 2017 hit ‘Shape Of You’. The case is just the latest example of a musician having to fight for their intellectual property. George Harrison, Lana Del Rey, and Nirvana all found themselves in the courtroom for not adhering to a famously vague and subjective concept: originality.

Led Zeppelin battled for the copyright of their classic track ‘Stairway To Heaven’ for years, only winning an appeal in 2016 after they were accused of stealing Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’. While Zeppelin eventually won the case, they’ve been accused of thievery by other artists too, including the Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch. Page often mentioned Jansch as a major influence. But, according to Jansch’s bandmate Jacqui McShee, Page directly lifted elements from two tracks from the singer’s album Jack Orion without crediting him.

McShee later opened up about Page’s theft: “Actually, I think it’s a very rude thing to do,” he began. “Pinch somebody else’s thing and credit it to yourself. It annoys me. … In all the English papers at home he’s always talking about Bert. Says he’s influenced. I mean, why say that and then put something on an LP and say Jimmy Page?”

McShee said that Page may have pinched the two songs from Jansch are ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’ and ‘Black Mountain Side’. The former is a very obvious reimagining of Jansch’s ‘The Wagonner’s Lad’, in which the folk musician plays the same riff using a Banjo. Perhaps even more flagrant is Page’s recycling of Jansch’s guitar work on ‘Black Waterside’. Aside from the tabla, pulses in the Led Zeppelin recording, the two songs are pretty much identical, which is hardly surprising considering Page barely changed the original title.

However, it’s worth remembering that folk music has always been an oral music tradition, with songs being passed down from player to player. When nothing is written down, the survival of a song depends on musicians reinterpreting it and passing it on. Indeed, Jansch’s own version of ‘Black Waterside’ is a rework of a traditional folk tune called ‘Down By The Waterside’. Arguably, the only reason we regard Page’s version of the song as theft and Jansch’s as a reimagining is that Page’s use of the track was commercial rather than communal. Considering music is immortalised in the digital sphere as soon as its release, is it any wonder copyright infringement cases are at an all-time high?

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