Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Immigrant Song

Having grown up in the 1970s when Led Zeppelin was ubiquitous on FM radio, I have been familiar with their music for a long time, but never gave them much serious thought. That all changed last fall at, of all places, Osaka's Japanese restaurant, where we were having a birthday party in the karaoke room. When one of the ringleaders (AH) selected "The Immigrant Song" I thought it was a bizarre choice, but as it turns out it has changed my life. I'd never thought about the lyrics before, they are fantastic. I'm convinced they are ironic and camp, but most long-time Zeppelin-watchers (including my husband) insist that's not the case.

Then I heard a fascinating cover version in March at the True/False Film Festival: a young woman (Karinne Keithly) playing "The Immigrant Song" on her ukelele. The True/False website describes her voice as "whispery and romantic;" to me her quiet, whispery rendition of the song was eerie and haunting. That's the thing about covers -- hearing a song in an unfamiliar context forces you to reconsider its meaning. That process of defamiliarizing and decontextualizing is a key strategy in pop art and postmodern culture in general, especially when it's done effectively. I mean, Zeppelin on a ukelele?? Who woulda thought?

For those who aren't familiar with the song, here are the lyrics:

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying:
Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

Ah, ah,
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
How soft your fields so green,
Can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war.
We are your overlords.
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day
Despite of all your losing.

"The Immigrant Song," like all Zeppelin songs, is sung by Robert Plant with Jimmy Page on guitar. It's a clear homage to Norse history, evoking Viking raids on the pre-Christian peoples of England and Northern Europe (the midnight sun refers to the extreme northern latitudes where the sun shines for almost 24 hours a day in the summer; Valhalla was the Viking paradise). For someone like me who's exposure to ancient history and mythology is limited to the classical world, these barbarians of northern Europe seem quite alien. Since I'm a novice at Zeppelinography, I consulted the famous story of the band, Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis, which is thorough and well written for its genre. Davis describes the song as follows:
" 'The Immigrant Song' reflected Robert [Plant]'s fascination with Celtic Britain and the tides of English history, especially the four-hundred-year period from the eighth to the eleventh centuries when the English fought for their island with generations of Viking invaders form Denmark and Sweden. "The Immigrant Song," with its images of barbarous Norse seamen and pillaged abbeys, was the first of Led Zeppelin's many hammers-of-the-gods threnodies..."
Threnodies? what are threnodies?? Other than that bit of jargon, Davis' explanation is pretty straightforward. I find I'm not the only one who picks up on the song's ironies; Davis writes, "The song was hard to take seriously because its premise was so goofy, but Zeppelin fans adored it; the song set the tone of overwrought Dark Ages fantasy--a cross between an antiquarian edition of Beowulf and a stack of mint Marvels--that would be the standard psychic backdrop for all the heavy metal bands to come." (Davis' comment about a cross between Beowulf and Marvel comics reminds me of this awesome publication -- Gareth Hinds' Beowulf -- the epic poem as graphic novel.)
Davis' analysis still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. To me what's puzzling about "The Immigrant Song" is that it encompasses two different and in fact opposed voices -- the voice of conquest and pillage ("we are your overlords") versus the voice of reconciliation and healing ("peace and trust can win the day"). Is the song intended to be a dialogue? If so, who are the two interlocutors? And why is there only one singer instead of two? If I am correctly understanding the syntax, the band is equating itself with the Norse invaders (the "immigrant" of the song's title) and not with the Britons (the ones being conquered) and with whom they more commonly identified. N. suggests the advocate of "peace and trust" is the hippie persona ("what's a little anachronism?" he said when I pointed out the song's fictional world).
And the title -- "The Immigrant Song" -- how could that not be seen as ironic?! "Immigrant" as a euphemism for invader and destroyer? (Given today's political climate in America some people seem to share that interpretation -- which itself is ironic in a society where more than 95 percent of the population are descended from immigrants...)
One of my favorite Fresh Air interviews was Terry Gross' conversation with Robert Plant, which aired on August 24, 2004 (recorded January 2004); Plant talks about some of his songs ("Stairway to Heaven," "Whole Lotta Love"), his singing style, and the band's music. He was so articulate and charming that I was completely won over. [Cf. Terry's interview with Kiss member Gene Simmons on Feb. 4, 2002 -- Simmons was so utterly obnoxious and offensive that I had to turn the radio off! You can't listen to the interview on the internet; the NPR website says it is "unavailable for legal reasons."] I wish Terry had asked Plant about "The Immigrant Song," but since she did not, I have to extrapolate from his discussion of "Stairway to Heaven" that he did intend his lyrics to be taken as serious social commentary (though he appreciates the many parodies of "Stairway to Heaven" that have since been recorded).
Speaking of the book Hammer of the Gods, I enjoyed reading about Jimmy Page's fascination with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), an extremely eccentric and debauched English poet/necromancer/heroin addict and self-professed "Wickedest Man in the World." At one point Crowley travelled to Mexico "where he spent a year trying to make his image vanish in a mirror." (Sounds like a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude.)
Truth (if indeed the book is truthful) is stranger than fiction: Davis writes about the band's experience in Copenhagen, where a woman named Eva von Zeppelin, "who claimed descent from the Count von Zeppelin who had designed the first German airships," tried to prevent the band from using her family name and to prevent them from appearing on Danish television. "Finally she was calmed down by Peter [Grant, the band's manager] and Jimmy [Page], but as she was leaving the studio she saw the first album cover with the zeppelin going down in flames, and she blew up again." I don't suppose you could make this stuff up.
Check this out:
Val's Halal -- internet advertisement for the (fictitious) Val's Halal Kebab Shop. Notice the banal music, and imagine instead "The Immigrant Song." (They used to use the Zeppelin track, but N. thinks they must have gotten busted for copyright infringment and had to remove it.)

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