The Story Behind “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” by Led Zeppelin and How It Took 20 Years for the Writer to Be Compensated

The earliest hints of Led Zeppelin surfaced when Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds in 1966. Their specialty was psychedelic blues with a rock edge and a pop sheen, and Page fit in perfectly. As band members began to get burned out from touring, Page and fellow guitarist Jeff Beck envisioned teaming up with the rhythm section of The Who to create a supergroup with Steve Winwood or Steve Marriott on vocals. Bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon were never fully on board, but Page, Beck, and Moon did record a song together with John Paul Jones on bass.

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Page put together a group using the name the New Yardbirds. He approached vocalist Terry Reid, who declined but suggested Robert Plant, who was in the Band of Joy. Plant eventually agreed, urging Page to try drummer John Bonham. Page felt he was on to something as soon as he heard Plant and Bonham together with bassist/keyboardist Jones. The band began working on a new album in September 1968, and it was recorded and mixed in nine days. Based largely on their live set, Page produced what would become their debut on Atlantic Records.

When it came time to choose a new name, Page reflected on John Entwistle’s comment about a band like that going down like a “lead balloon,” meaning it would not be successful or popular. The idea of mixing heavy and light music in the same way a blimp is both heavy yet lighter than air appealed to Page. Manager Peter Grant offered the change from “lead” to “led” to avoid the mispronunciation of the uninformed as “leed.”

Critics seemed to agree with Entwistle, as reviews were harsh; however, the public embraced the band, pushing every album to Platinum status. Generations have embraced the band, and the songs have endured. As the band evolved, they did not rely on radio singles. The albums were constructed as complete listening experiences. The opening song of their debut, “Good Times, Bad Times,” only reached No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the self-titled album has been certified eight times Platinum. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You by Led Zeppelin.

Babe, baby, baby, I’m gonna leave you
I said baby, you know I’m gonna leave you
I’ll leave you when the summertime
Leave you when the summer comes a-rollin’
Leave you when the summer comes along

Original Version

Anne Bredon wrote the song in the late 1950s, and it became part of Joan Baez’s repertoire after she heard it from an Oberlin College student named Janet Smith. Baez released a live album, In Concert, in 1962, which included the song without proper writing credit. Later pressings corrected the mistake, but Jimmy Page owned a copy without the credit and assumed it was in the public domain. When Led Zeppelin recorded it, it was credited as “traditional, arranged by Jimmy Page.”

Page spoke about the song to Daniel Rachel in 2014’s The Art of Noise: Conversations with Great Songwriters: “Because of the dynamics of the music, it could be more gentle if you like, and then it could have an aggressive hit to it and then be gentle again. For example, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,’ which, for me, is quite a major, important track on the first album. I heard that on a Joan Baez in-concert album. I thought, ‘That’s such a good song.’ I assumed it was a public domain song because a lot of artists around that time were doing traditional folk songs, and it was the only song that didn’t have a credit on it. I worked out this arrangement using a more finger-style method and then having a flamenco burst in it. Again, it’s light and shade and this drama of accents, using the intensity of what would be a louder section for effect.”

Babe, babe, babe, babe, babe, babe, baby
Baby, I wanna leave you
I ain’t jokin’, woman, I’ve got to ramble
Oh yeah
Baby, baby, I be leavin’
We really got to ramble
I can hear it callin’ me the way it used to do
I can hear it callin’ me back home

Righting a Wrong

Two decades passed before the mistake was discovered. Smith’s son was listening to the Led Zeppelin album, saw the credit, and notified Bredon. The credit was updated, and an arrangement was made to compensate the writer. It now lists the composers as Page, Plant, and Bredon.

Babe, oh
Babe, I’m gonna leave you
Oh, baby
You know, I’ve really got to leave you
Oh, I can hear it callin’ me
I said don’t you hear it callin’ me the way it used to do?

A Gibson J-200

Page shared information about what guitar he played on the recording. In 1977, Steven Rosen of Guitar Player magazine asked him specifically what acoustic guitar he used. Said Page: “That was a Gibson J-200, which wasn’t mine; I borrowed it. It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy-gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.”

I know, I know
I know I never, never, never, never, never gonna leave you, babe
But I gotta go away from this place
I gotta quit you, yeah
Oh, baby, baby, baby, baby
Baby, baby, baby, oh
Don’t you hear it callin’ me?

Flamenco Guitar

Page constantly experimented in the recording studio. In 2007, he told David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine about the other instruments he used: “It’s got all these colors in it, the hypnotic, rippling guitar in the verses, the flamenco breaks in between. There was pedal steel, acoustic guitar—things that were hard, as well as [had] extreme sensitivity.”

Oh, woman, woman, I know, I know
It feels good to have you back again
And I know that one day, baby, it’s really gonna grow, yes, it is
We gonna go walkin’ through the park every day
Come what may, every day
Oh, my, my, my, my, my, my babe
I’m gonna leave you, go away

A Pedal Steel

In 1984, Page told Stuart Grundy in The Guitar Greats, “I just love every aspect of guitar playing, and I try and play a little bit of everything. On ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,’ which was pretty original as far as it went, and I don’t think anything like that had been done before, I tried putting on a pedal steel guitar, which I’d had, but never known the legitimate tuning of, so the only thing I could really play on it was the sort of instrumental thing that Chuck Berry had done, things like ‘Deep Feeling.’ I’d heard those and read afterwards that they’d been done on a pedal steel that was sitting in the studio, and the full extent of my knowledge on pedal steel was finding a tuning that emulated those slow blues instrumentals which Chuck Berry did, but anyhow, out it came, and it was OK on ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.'”

So good, see, baby
It was really, really good
You made me happy every single day
But now, I’ve got to go away
Baby, baby, baby
That’s when it’s callin’ me
I said that’s when it’s callin’ me back home

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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