Whether it’s through the garage rock minimalism that he explored with The White Stripes, the more refined rock and roll touted by The Raconteurs, or the experimental work that has followed him in his solo career, everything seems to come back to the blues for Jack White.
The Detroit guitarist built his reputation by reinterpreting classic blues tracks like the Son House number ‘Death Letter’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Stop Breaking Down’. With just a cheap plastic guitar and an amp, White conjured up the terrifying old school magic of death and destruction that gave old fashioned blues music its power. Even more importantly, he did it in a way that felt authentic to the form, reinterpreting tracks like the classic folk music that they were. In that way, he shares a kinship with fellow blues devotees Led Zeppelin.
To call Led Zeppelin “reinterpreters” of the blues might be giving them too much credit. It won’t take long to find detractors who take issue with the band’s liberal swiping of classic blues lines and licks, while the band members themselves raked in the royalties and put their own names on the songwriting credits. But according to an authority like White, what Zeppelin did was legitimately connect with the parts of blues that made it so essential.
“What was interesting about Led Zeppelin was how well they were able to update and capture the essence of the scary part of the blues,” White explains in Jimmy Page’s biography Light and Shade. “A great Zeppelin track is every bit as intense and spontaneous as a Blind Willie Johnson recording.”
For a specific example, White pointed to a section of ‘Dazed and Confused’ from Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album. “Right before the second verse, Jimmy starts making a bunch of abrasive noise. And that is so much like a 100% amped-up version of Robert Johnson.”
When he had to summarise, White left no stone unturned. “At a time when everyone thought the blues had been taken to its highest, hardest-hitting point, it turned out to not be the case,” he said. “Page came along with Led Zeppelin and turned it up 10 more notches… Led Zeppelin is the ultimate expression of the power of the blues”.