'Traveling Riverside Blues' and the Roots of Led Zeppelin

Nov 1, 2013

Robert Johnson has become a mythical figure of the blues, who acquired his prodigious skills in a deal with the devil at the crossroads. The truth is he was a man who worked very hard to turn himself into a musician. His early attempts at music – sitting in with legends Charley Patton and Son House—were not successful, and he didn’t appear to have much in the way of musical talent.

But then Johnson found a teacher in Ike Zinneman, an unrecorded Mississippi blues player, spending a year developing his musicianship.

He returned to the performing world with a mature and unique style that drew upon blues, pop and country music of the day. It was certainly an amazing transformation, fueling the idea that he had made the infamous deal with the devil.

Although he only recorded 29 songs in his short life, the genius of his songwriting, musicianship and singing have influenced the entire development of blues and rock. He recorded “Traveling Riverside Blues” in 1937, but Robert Johnson’s music did not sell well in his own time. It was not until Columbia released a collection of his music in 1961 that the world heard him, and he began to get recognition for his remarkable achievements.

Rock groups like The Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin found a lot of their inspiration from the songs and style of Robert Johnson. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant referred to him this way:“Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way.” Over the years, Plant mixed in Johnson’s lyrics to many of their songs, but “Traveling Riverside Blues” was the only Johnson title they recorded. They tracked it in 1969, but it wasn’t released on an album until 1990.

This is Zeppelin’s “official” music video for the song:

Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson "the most important blues musician who ever lived”, and much of his career has involved Johnson in some way. From Cream’s 1969 “Crossroads Blues” to Clapton’s 2004 release Me and Mr. Johnson, Clapton has probably done more than any other musician to bring attention to the work of Robert Johnson. “Traveling Riverside Blues” appears on the 2004 tribute. Here’s Clapton playing it live: 

David Jacobs-Strain is a young blues player who has successfully merged his folk-blues training with a very modern approach to rhythm and style. His 2008 version of “Traveling Riverside Blues” is informed by both Robert Johnson and Led Zeppelin.

Here are the complete versions of “Traveling Riverside Blues” tracked through time:

Robert Johnson “Traveling Riverside Blues” 1937

Led Zeppelin  “Travelling Riverside Blues” 1970

Eric Clapton “Traveling Riverside Blues” 2004

David Jacobs-Strain “Traveling Riverside Blues” 2008