What do Led Zeppelin, Leonard Nimoy and Joni Mitchell have in common?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on the music industry

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

The experienced cinephile, or anyone who was a teenage girl in 2013, will be familiar with Howard Shore’s astounding soundtracks to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, as well as Ed Sheeran’s hit “I See Fire.” Setting aside the hours of music written specifically for adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, Middle Earth has inspired generations of musicians to write fantasy instrumental, classic rock and even heavy metal songs.

The drug-fueled ’70s — the same decade as Tolkien’s death — saw a massive spike in Middle Earth-related music. Perhaps the most famous songs are a trio off of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album: “The Battle of Evermore,” “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Ramble On.” All three reference iconic figures like the creature Gollum and the Ringwraiths — though, frankly, the latter is the only one in which Robert Plant doesn’t sound like he’s whining about a stomach ache. Sorry to all the diehard “Led heads.”

Leonard Nimoy performs “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” on the variety show Malibu U. Courtesy image.

According to The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin by Nigel Williamson, “Misty Mountain Hop” uses imagery from The Hobbit to sing about a 1968 rally to legalize marijuana in the U.K. “Ramble On,” on the other hand, asks the question: What would you do if your girlfriend ran off with a toothless, half-naked man?

Meanwhile, Black Sabbath was recording “The Wizard” for its first album — which Geezer Butler based on Tolkien’s Gandalf, according to Rolling Stone. If he conflated the kindly wizard with the band’s dealer, well, they say, “Write what you know.”

Five years later the rock band Rush penned the ballad “Rivendell” about the fictional elfin city, which proved to be an underwhelming addition to its second studio album Fly by Night.

Though one could argue that the Orcs of Mordor and young, rebellious hobbits would listen to rock, artists like Joni Mitchell produced music that blends stylistically with the idyllic landscapes of Middle Earth.

While introducing her song “I Think I Understand” at a 1969 concert, Mitchell revealed that the elf-queen Galadriel inspired her delicate musings on fear and hope.

“When the travelers came to her kingdom before they had to venture off into very dangerous places and everything, she gave them a vial of light and she said, ‘Take this vial and whenever you’re in a dark place take it out.’ Well, being into metaphors a lot myself I decided that what she probably was giving them was a memory of a beautiful time and with that interpretation and her hope and her memory,” said Mitchell, according to her official website.

Unlike Led Zeppelin, Mitchell only borrowed the phrase “the wilderland” from Tolkien, rather than making more explicit references.

Pink Floyd got in on the action when Syd Barrett — who later left the band due to psychedelic drug use and probable mental health issues — wrote a two-minute song titled “The Gnome,” about a gnome named Grimble Grumble. Though it doesn’t make explicit reference to Tolkien, many have speculated that the song takes inspiration from The Hobbit, which likewise depicts a small, food-loving man who goes on a grand adventure. Is it a stretch? Maybe, but it’s undoubtedly worth a listen.

Last and certainly least is the 1968 song “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” performed by Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy. The painful novelty song details the entire plot of The Hobbit, beginning with the lines “In the Middle of the Earth, in the land of Shire / Lives a brave little hobbit whom we all admire.”

In the documentary For the Love of Spock, Nimoy’s son reveals that the actor wanted to show a different side of himself, separate from his reserved character on Star Trek. It certainly shattered that illusion.

Musicians continue to draw inspiration from these groundbreaking fantasy novels, though in more melodious and less hilarious ways. I can only hope for a resurgence akin to the ’70s, wherein Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga release new, psychedelic interpretations of Tolkien’s legendarium.

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