Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Nobody’s Fault But Mine

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant with Hossam Ramzy‘s Egyptian Ensemble: Nobody’s Fault But Mine


Abigail Washburn: Nobody’s Fault But Mine


Here are two very different versions of the same song, each of which qualifies in a different way for our Unusual Instruments theme. Nobody’s Fault But Mine is a gospel blues song that can be traced back to at least 1924, when Blind Willie Johnson recorded it. The song has been done in may ways by many artists over the years. Johnson recorded it with acoustic guitar and growly blues vocals, the Staple Singers did a pop-gospel version, and there have R&B and folk versions as well, just to name a few.

One of the best known versions of Nobody’s Fault But Mine was done by Led Zeppelin in 1976. Robert Plant removed some of the more overtly religious lyrics, and replaced them with verses based on blues lyrical motifs. The whole thing was given one of Led Zeppelin’s trademark thunderous rock treatments. Personally, I never liked Plant’s screaming vocals with the group, or Jimmy Page’s screaming guitar either. But I have come to admire the artistry of how Led Zeppelin put their songs together, while still not caring for the results. Zep always had one secret weapon in their music, that helped make them sound like no one else. Early in their existence, they found a link between the modality of the blues and the music of the Arab World, and many of their songs were built on that link. So it was that, years after the dissolution of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page got back together to record the album No Quarter. Here, Plant and Page made explicit the connection that had been such an important influence. No Quarter was recorded with a group of Egyptian musicians led by Hossam Ramzy. Some of the instruments they play on the album include doholla, duf, bendir, and reque. The picture above is a doholla. Hossam Ramzy is well versed in the Bedouin music of Egypt, and he is known for collaborations with Egyptian artists like Rachid Taha, but also with Western artists, including not only Plant and Page but also Peter Gabriel.

The banjo is the unusual instrument in my second version of Nobody’s Fault. Of course, a banjo is not that unusual, but it is in this context. Going back to the earliest music that might be considered blues, you find that the old-time black string bands often included a banjo. So there may well have been a version of Nobody’s Fault But Mine that included one, but I guarantee that it didn’t sound like Abigail Washburn’s version. Washburn began her musical career while she was living in China, and she even wrote bluegrass songs with words in Chinese, some of which she has recorded. So it makes sense that Washburn would cross musical as well as political boundaries. Her singing of Nobody’s Fault is somewhere between the song’s origins in blues and as a spiritual, but the banjo is not a guitar. So Washburn creates a percussive backdrop that works as a heartbeat, while also providing harmony for her vocal. The result is not exactly blues or gospel or bluegrass, but something entirely new.

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