Sometimes I wish I could say that a great novel or an experience with an especially gifted teacher or professor lit a spark for the humanities in me. Certainly, many novels and teachers planted seeds that I can identify and surely many more that I can’t. For me, that singular moment came in the form of the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble on.”

And it was in one of the moments of struggle that come more than occasionally to obsessive nerds. How could teenage me sound more like Jimmy Page on guitar? Exactly like him?

I had to understand all the people and tools who contributed to Led Zeppelin’s music. What allowed them to make the sounds they did? Jimmy Page used a Supro amplifier – all but impossible to find. A Fender Telecaster guitar – a little easier. Most of the time, I couldn’t afford the equipment, but I could afford wood and parts for a guitar that got pretty close. More opportunities to learn every intricacy that made the sounds on those albums and, particularly, on this song.

I had to learn everything.

What made them want to write that lyric? What gives this song or that album its atmosphere? Old American blues classics filled the early albums, most of them ripped off and virtually unacknowledged for decades. Better learn those blues scales! Other songs like “Stairway to Heaven” almost certainly plagiarized from the white American band Spirit, the subject of a recent lawsuit. So I had to learn everything I could about Spirit, just for context.

And then there was “Ramble On:”

Mine’s a tale that can’t be told, my freedom I hold dear
How years ago in days of old when magic filled the air
‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair
But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her


Mordor? Gollum?

Like the Peter Jackson movie?

…Oh there are books, too.

Guess I had to read those.

How un-classically educated of me. To understand Led Zeppelin, one must understand J.R.R. Tolkien. Not the other way around.

And an entire pseudo-medieval world opened to me. From Tolkien came Beowulf. Then the German classes. The Latin classes. And a semester in Great Britain to study the Middle Ages in an appropriate setting. A senior thesis and then an article on the medieval English Church. All done with “Ramble On,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and so many other songs bouncing around in my head. Past and present came to me via a detour in the 1970s, courtesy of Atlantic Records.

To a white American kid with deep interest in the history of the “West,” it almost seemed like Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jon Bonham were making the sounds I wanted to hear. Maybe even the sounds I was supposed to hear. Why was it so easy to hear that very mythical, very white world that resided somewhere between Tolkien’s imagination and the stage of Madison Square Garden? How could I even attempt to minimize the blatant plagiarism, often entirely uncredited from the Black artists? We all mimic, we all copy, right? The humanities, after all, demonstrate this. Tolkien ripped off Beowulf. Shakespeare could be derivative.

But for Zeppelin, how lucrative that mimicry was. Extractionary even. As I entered graduate school, I started to wonder whether I was complicit in something. The song “The Rover,” overlooked as a masterwork of the electric guitar despite being the second song on side one of the band’s most ambitious album Physical Graffiti, may be autobiographical in this sense. Written about an early modern privateering ship of the same name:

Oh how I wonder, oh how I worry, and I would dearly like to know
I’ve all this wonder, of earthly plunder, will it leave us anything to show?
And our time is flying, see the candle burning low
Is the new world rising, from the shambles of the old

Was this the real Led Zeppelin? The colonial plunderer masking as medieval romantic? Had I been enjoying the results of their plunder while living in a fantasy? Was Led Zeppelin, intentionally or not, telling a sad story about lies we tell ourselves as we sit atop so much plunder? Turns out asking those questions is even more uncomfortable from a neogothic university building that – like “Ramble On,” represents and contains some gilded version of a pure Western past full of wonder, excellence, passion, and even glorious danger. Was this how Led Zeppelin seemed easily to contribute to my identity while I had to investigate intentionally Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, whose songs and ideas I was really hearing under Zeppelin’s gilded, white, commercial veneer? Gollum and Gandalf were out in the open and yet fictional. The real person Howlin’ Wolf was somehow silent despite his very name, which demands explicitly to be heard.

My humanities moment, hearing and wondering about the lyrics to “Ramble On” was a “turning point,” to use a tired historian’s phrase. But my memory of that moment and my recurring reflection on it have taught me more than any single point in time ever could. Frankly, humanities moments can occlude as much as they illuminate. Unqualified enthusiasm for anything is rarely a Good Thing, and any feeling of rootedness in a romanticized version of the Middle Ages while selectively disregarding the labor and the accomplishments of nonwhite artists certainly falls on the more dangerous end of a spectrum. Humanities moments can be dangerous. They can distort and mislead. But they can be revisited through the texts that sparked them and through memory itself. They must be criticized. They have to be questioned. Only then can we learn from them. They can remain a source of inspiration, but never as simple, pure, mythical as at the instance of their occurrence.

Many times I’ve lied, and many times I’ve listened
Many times I’ve wondered how much there is to know

– Frank Lacopo (Ph.D. Candidate)