Sunday, June 16, 2002

'Win My Train Fare Home': Robert Plant song review of the day (No. 4 of 10)

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

Today's song is "Win My Train Fare Home." It was given the working title of "If I Ever Get Lucky" when used to open Plant's live sets last year. I chose to review this song on June 16, the 33rd anniversary that Led Zeppelin recorded the blues-steeped "The Girl I Love." What these two tracks have in common is the way the singer handles his influences from the blues genre at large.

As long as Plant has been singing, he's been influenced by the blues. Through the years, he's spoken about bluesmen like Charley Patton, quoted from writers like Bukka White and covered entire songs by Willie Dixon. Over and over, Plant cites Chess recordings by Howlin' Wolf as some of the dearest to him.

The writing credit goes to Robert Plant and band, as well as the late Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, author of "If I Get Lucky" in the 1940s (another, later version of which is credited to J.B. Lenoir). But the lyrics in "Train Fare" are from more than one source; Plant compiled lyrics from some of the most honest blues songs, tracks that have endured in vinyl form on Plant's shelf. In addition to Crudup's "If I Get Lucky," Plant also quotes from "Key to the Highway" by Big Bill Broonzy, "Milkcow's Calf Blues" by Robert Johnson, "Crawling Kingsnake" by John Lee Hooker and "Levee Camp Moan" by Son House.

"Crawling Kingsnake" was a tune Plant used to sing in a band called the Crawling Kingsnakes; it was his first band with John Bonham. But probably most meaningful to Plant are the Crudup lyrics ("If I ever get lucky, mama, I'd win my train fare home..."). Thirty-four years ago, Plant could barely afford the transportation fare to go to Jimmy Page's boathouse to discuss the possible formation of Led Zeppelin. Needless to say, the 19-year-old singer ended up lucky and won his train fare home.

There's no question that this is the Delta blues. It's just that the delta might be beside some river on another planet. A plethora of guitars and keyboard instruments describe the landscape and atmosphere of the delta.

Charlie Jones plays an upright bass for this one and switches at will between plucking and bowing it. At the instrumental section, the interplay between guitar and bass is legendary. The guitar action itself is full of bluesy, bent notes, and Jones uncharacteristically explores the upper reaches of his fretless instrument like a true jazz bassist. This is one of my two favorite moments on the entire album.

During the break, I count four times Plant sings the Arabic word, "yallah," which means "Let's go." It's a word that entered Plant fans' vernacular first in 1994, when they titled a new Unledded track "Yallah" (retitled the next year as "The Truth Explodes").

The point is that Robert Plant is very enthusiastic about the blues and incorporating not just Arabic influences into it but also the unique contributions of his wonderful band. This song is a prime example of the diverse forces within the Strange Sensation flowing together to gel into one sound, or as Plant put it recently in an interview for BBC radio, a "mix of really astute and colorful musicians."

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