Bob Boilen, veteran music journalist and host of NPR’s popular music show All Songs Considered, had a deceptively simple question for musicians when he began compiling his new book: What song changed your life?
In Your Song Changed My Life, dozens of musicians, from Dave Grohl, David Byrne and St. Vincent to Sturgill Simpson, Michael Stipe and Carrie Brownstein, took on the challenge, revealing how one track influenced them and their musical style during their formative years. The best chapters are the least obvious connections: Philip Glass waxes on Spike Jones, while Jenny Lewis recalls her obsession with early hip-hop.
In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page discusses his love of influential skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan. “So many Brits of that age talk about skiffle music [and] Donegan was king,” Boilen tells Rolling Stone. “But it wasn’t till I began to think of how Donegan changed the blues and ‘skiffled it up’ that I made the connection to how Jimmy Page took Donegan and electrified it to shocking and long-lasting effects.”
“I wanted to have my own approach to what I did. I didn’t want to … do a carbon copy of B.B. King, but I really love the blues. The blues had so much effect on me and I just wanted to make my own contribution in my own way.” As a young kid growing up first in the West London suburb of Heston, then a few miles away in Epsom, Surrey, Page mined, appropriated and appreciated the depths of American blues. The move with his family from Heston to Epsom turned out to be a life-changing one. In their new home, he found a guitar that had been left there by its previous owner. At the time, the instrument did not excite the eight-year-old James Patrick Page. It was 1952, rock & roll wasn’t even on the radio yet, and no one in his family was a musician.
That guitar, found by a young Jimmy Page, could have been tossed or taken up by his mom or dad, but it wasn’t. It remained in the house until, three years later, it became the medium that changed his life and, honestly, the lives of a million others.
Jimmy’s story as a musician begins with the song that changed his life: Lonnie Donegan’s “Rock Island line,” a big hit in England in 1955 as performed by the Scottish-born singer. it’s an American blues to and about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad line. It was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax in Arkansas prison, and later made famous by the Louisiana blues legend Lead Belly. Jimmy had heard Donegan’s version many times on the radio, and even owned the record, but he wasn’t inspired to pick up the guitar until the day he heard Rod Wyatt, a kid at school, play it on his. Jimmy told Rod about the guitar he had at home, and Rob promised that if Jimmy brought it in, he’d show him how to tune it and play a few chords.
“It was a campfire guitar … but it did have all the strings on it which is pretty useful because I wouldn’t have known where to get guitar strings from. And then [Rod] showed me how to tune it up … and then I started strumming away like not quite like — not quite like Lonnie Donegan, but I was having a go.”
Donegan took the past, owned the present, and influenced a generation of great rock musicians. “He really understood all that stuff, Lonnie Donegan,” Page says. “But this is the way that he sort of, should we say, jazzed it up or skiffled it up. By the time you get to the end of this he’s really spitting it out … he keeps singing ‘Rock Island line, Rock Island’ [and] you really get this whole staccato aspect of it. It’s fantastic stuff! So many guitarist from the Sixties will all say Lonnie Donegan was [their] influence.”
From Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen. Copyright © 2016 by Bob Boilen. Published by HarperCollins. Reprinted by permission.