For those who don’t know, I spent a large amount of time during grad school working in and around Musicology. That also means that I have done a lot of writing about various aspects of the art form, especially popular music. Here is pt. 1 of a paper that I wrote about the role and identity of bass in popular music from the not so distant past. All appendixes are linked at the bottom for reader’s convenience.
John Paul Jones and the improvisatory elements of bass in Led Zeppelin, Pt. 1
by Hans Peterman
Through the early part of their recording career in the late sixties and early seventies, Led Zeppelin quickly established themselves not only as prolific album producers, but as crowd pleasing live improvisers. Centering on tight rhythm section interaction and lengthy guitar solos spiced with vocal improvisations, the band maintained a “tight but loose” presentation that pushed all parts of the musical texture to new heights of experimentation. Elements such as virtuosic musicianship, using fragments of other songs during their lengthy group jams, and sheer epic length and size helped quickly make Led Zeppelin an underground live sensation.
Underneath Jimmy Page’s extended guitar solos and over John Bonham’s complicated and groove-based drumming, John Paul Jones’ bass lines offered not only a melodic and harmonically foundational style of bass playing, but also a level of improvisation rarely matched in the playing of other bass players during the period.
Demonstrated in the song “Traveling Riverside Blues”, Jones presents a riff-based foundation of playing which allowed him to improvise throughout the song, extensively using fills at the end of phrases, as well as changing the rhythmic and melodic character of the riffs he played, while he maintained the structural integrity needed to define the song form. On this track in particular, as well as others in their early career, there is an evolutionary improvisation that is presented by the bassist. Maintaining a consistent approach to the foundational riffs is important to establishing the song form to the listener. The bass line that is constructed shares similarities throughout the structure. However, as the song progresses, more of the space around these structural elements is improvised. This concept of evolutionary improvisation in the bass part gives the listener the feeling that as the song progresses, each time through the form is more improvised, culminating in the extensive improvisations during the guitar solo phrase near the end of the song.mming, John Paul Jones’ bass lines offered not only a melodic and harmonically foundational style of bass playing, but also a level of improvisation rarely matched in the playing of other bass players during the period.m section interaction and lengthy guitar solos spiced with vocal improvisations, the band maintained a “tight but loose” presentation that pushed all parts of the musical texture to new heights of experimentation. Elements such as virtuosic musicianship, using fragments of other songs during their lengthy group jams, and sheer epic length and size helped quickly make Led Zeppelin an underground live sensation.
“Traveling Riverside Blues” was originally recorded live on June 29th, 1969 at Maida Vale Studio 4 in London, England. The track was recorded along with others for one of several live performances for BBC radio that Led Zeppelin did between 1968 and 1971. BBC radio live sessions, also done by illustrious bands of the period like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Who, was a common way for groups to market their music to British audiences. The song was later released as part of the album Coda in 1982, a compilation of unreleased tracks put together after John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980. “Traveling Riverside Blues” was then later on the Led Zeppelin box set release in 1991, and still later on the BBC Sessions compilation released in 1997. It was also extensively used as a promotional track for the previously mentioned box set, the first collection of the Zeppelin catalog to be digitally remastered by Jimmy Page.
Much of Led Zeppelin’s influence and inspiration came from early American blues artists like Johnson. Jimmy Page especially demonstrated a love for the form, and much of the impetus for putting Led Zeppelin together was to play the early american blues music “heavy”. Although some of the lyrics and some song forms were directly taken from the original songs that Zeppelin covered, most of the time the riffs in the band’s version were all original. This song helped stoked the fire of controversy of credit and ownership in Led Zeppelin’s catalog during the 1980’s. Many of the songs off of the bands first few albums were claimed by American blues artists, and the band did much atoning for this, included lucrative settlements and crediting original artists on certain tracks. Interestingly, this song should not have been much of a controversy, since all of the recorded versions listed Robert Johnson as the primary songwriter, included the earliest in 1982.
Listing Robert Johnson as primary songwriter may have been generous and credited as more of a tribute to the famous bluesman, as all of the riffs in the song are original and the Zeppelin version bears almost no musical resemblance to the 1937 recording. Robert Plant’s lyrics, generally the most similar characteristic to the original when the band covered blues songs, were actually an amalgamation in “Traveling Riverside Blues”. They contain lyrical sections of several different Robert Johnson standards, including Come Into My Kitchen and Kindhearted Woman, as well as songs from other artists, includingSleepy John Estes’ Milk Cow Blues andSt. Louis Jimmy Oden’s Goin’ Down Slow. (www.ledzeppelin.org)
“Traveling Riverside Blues” bears a lot of resemblance to the “Lemon Song”, released on Led Zeppelin II, on October 22nd, 1969. Not only does the “Lemon Song” consist of the famous “Squeeze my lemon” refrain, but contains extensive bass improvisations, including the second verse, which is sans guitar. This style of rhythm section only accompaniment to the vocals may have been spawned from “Traveling Riverside Blues”.