Robert Plant – Ethnomusicologist

Long, if somewhat laudatory, interview with Robert Plant in Toronto by Ed Vulliamy1


Robert Plant’s music-making is like an hourglass. At the source of the process is a wider, more rapacious range of influences than those of any other singer, which converge through the bottleneck of Plant’s remarkable voice and muse, only to widen again into a delta of sound, incorporating and interweaving all of them. Plant once talked about “subliminal flutters passing Beefheart, Son House, Terry Reid and the call to prayer from the minaret of the Koutoubia in Marrakech, all waiting to contribute to the next sound”. “Every 16 bars, we visit another country,” Plant had told me while rehearsing in a barn in Wiltshire with his excellent band Strange Sensation in 2006, and he still does.

It starts with Delta blues, then follows them north with the migrations to southside Chicago, where Elmore James plugged the black man’s blues into the white man’s amplifier. Into that mix add “Jimmy Powell, Chris Farlowe, Steve Marriott and John Lennon” – the latter of whom haunts the Band of Joy’s track “Falling in Love Again”. The trails of Victorian explorer Richard Burton (whom Plant read as a boy) took him to north Africa and the discovery of those Indo-Arabic sound tapestries, and then there’s that often forgotten ingredient, on which Plant draws for his encore in Toronto: the lovely “I Bid You Goodnight”, an a cappella gospel song resurrected in the 1960s by the Incredible String Band. People often forget that Led Zeppelin were a folk band, too, drawing in no small part on the mystical history and song of the Welsh borderlands where Plant grew up and lives (at least nominally) — Celts, Saxons and Britons overlaying one another’s pagan and early mystical Christian roots. But, as Plant says, the String Band got the song from Joseph Spence and the Pindar family, who were Bahamanian.So a conversation with Plant in Toronto about the tributaries feeding the Band of Joy is a wild musicological crisscrossing of the Atlantic.We talk about young Plant in England, the son of civil engineer, with a passion for Wolverhampton Wanderers; but “with receptors wide open to everything”, too, transfixed by visits of Son House and the Delta bluesmen, “though it if it hadn’t been for people like Mike Bloomfield in America, Son House would never have been found driving a school bus, as he was”.

Particular concerts are recalled: Bukka White, Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at Birmingham town hall between 1963 and 1966. “When I met Sonny Terry,” says Plant, “he was blind, and I had to help him guide the rubber stamp he used to autograph albums”. But American bands of the 60s were meanwhile “doing things with songs like ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, and music that had come to America from the UK and Europe catalogued and collected by Cecil Sharp to Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress”. This is the music that, essentially, became Americana, that rich, mercurial gathering of folk, country, gospel, bluegrass and r’n’b.

In his introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” in Toronto, Plant gives the headbangers in his audience a brief lesson in its trajectory as “an English folk song” which came across the ocean “with the Pilgrim Fathers to Virginia, and down into Louisiana, where it was taken and made into a black song. We heard this song by a guy called Lead Belly back in the 60s”. Following three Atlantic crossings, from Plymouth to the deep south via Virginia, back to the Black

(click here to continue reading Robert Plant: the showman must go on | Music | Music | The Observer.)

I am a bit of a fledgling ethnomusicologist myself, and perhaps this is why Robert Plant is still interesting to my ears in a way that others from his era are not. I like his current Band of Joy album, you should give it a spin…

  1. who admits:

    it was my great honor to be writing liner notes for Plant’s collected solo albums.


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