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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 159
Sun. July 7, 2013

“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
Led Zeppelin


“♫ That’s
it’s calling

A majority of Led Zeppelin fans would argue that “Stairway to Heaven” is not only the band’s most famous song but also the best song from their electrically charged canon. But there’s another acoustic song that I believe is worthy of the top spot as the greatest Led Zeppelin song of all time—1968’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”

Many would argue since “Babe” is a traditional folk song and not a Page and Plant original composition making it ineligible for greatest songs status. But does that mean Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or his cover of “Hey Joe” aren’t his best performances on vinyl because those songs weren’t originals penned by the great guitarist? Nonsense, it’s all in the performance. The best artists can perfectly honor a traditional song by inhabiting it’s aura and making the song sound just like their own; Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did this with “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”

Although “Babe” was originally recorded by Joan Baez on her 1962 live album, yet, according to Keith Shadwick’s Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music 1968-1980, it was another blue-eyed soul singer that inspired Robert Plant’s achingly soaring vocal performance. Keith specifically claimed specifically, Janis’s howling cover of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime” was the vocal template for “Babe” when he wrote, “Plant’s vocal, in particular, suggests close listening to Janis Joplin’s approach, if not her style. He is paraphrasing from the first word, stretching the lyrics and altering the line, first in whispers, later in more strident declamation, while the acoustic guitars accompany.”

In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, when talking about “Babe,” Jimmy Page praised Robert Plant’s Janis inspired vocal when he said, “I knew exactly how that was going to shape up. I set the mood with the acoustic guitar and that flamenco-like section. But Robert embraced it. He came up with an incredible, plaintive vocal.” Later, Page used “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” as an example of the eclectic diversity of his energetic rock band when he argued in Brad Tolinski’s Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, “The first album featured two folk-oriented songs, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Black Mountain Side,” but the critics just never noticed. Our performance of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” showed how original the band was. There weren’t many hard-rock groups who would have the nerve to play a song originally recorded by Joan Baez.”

Before there was “Stairway” Led Zeppelin reached for the heavens when they unleashed the acoustic fury of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” Because this Joan Baez song was than just another sixties cover song, it’s no coincidence Nigel Williamson author of The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin, named this 1968 cut number one in his section of the “50 Great Tracks of Led Zeppelin.” It’s the acoustic virtuoso of Page’s chords as he shreds the guitar like his wailing an electric but with much more tender flair. And what about the longing in Plant’s vocal reflecting the undecided lover who craves the skin of the paramour he doesn’t want to let go.

Mirroring the carnal desires of the band’s soon to be infamous lothario tendencies, 1968’s performance of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” captures the honest versatility of a band just coming into form. Remember this was from Led Zeppelin’s first album, three years before Jimmy Page, Robert Planet, John Paul Jones and John Bonham ever through about reaching past the clouds to craft 1971’s seminal hit “Stairway to Heaven.” So before you make up your mind on the greatest Led Zeppelin song, I urge you to look back and embrace the loud and quiet purity within the light and shade beauty of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”