Babe I’m Gonna Leave You is an anonymous traditional song for many people because that is what the most famous cover, the one of Led Zeppelin, led to believe due to the credits that appeared next to the title on their first album; others believe that the song belongs to the English Band. But the fault comes from further away, from the cover that Joan Baez had previously released — for many others she is the author of the song. Jimmy Page stated that he got the idea when he listened to Baez’s cover from her album Joan Baez in Concert Part 1, of 1962.
After Baez’s cover, and before the Led Zeppelin’s one, Babe I’m Gonna Leave You was also cover by Barbara Müller in 1964, by The Plebs also in 1964, by Californian band The Association in 1965, by English singer and actor Mark Wynter also in 1965, by Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1967, who made a variation of the song that in turn was cover by the Welsh band Man in 1975; Another cover? The one of The Great White in 1994 directly from the cover of Led Zeppelin.
However, the song belongs to Anne Bredon, American folk singer born on September 7th in Berkeley, California, who composed the song in the late 50s during her university years; due to her style some of her songs have been mistaken for old folk. Bredon is the daughter of physicist Leonard Loeb and granddaughter of Jacques Loeb, renowned psychologist and biologist German-born, one of the most famous American scientist.
Joan Baez, that although she also writes her own songs, is known for playing traditional flok songs and other musicians’ songs, she began her career like this and is famous for perform songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and a bunch more. Initially her cover was credited as “Traditional, arr. by Baez”, but later in 1964 the song was credited to its true author in her sheet book “The Joan Baez Song Book.”
Nearly 1960, Bredon — Anne Johannson at that time because her first husband, she would get last name Bredon from her second husband, mathematics teacher Glen Bredon — had the chance to perform her song on the radio program The Midnight Special of KPFA station in Berkeley. The song caught the attention of also folk singer Janet Smith, regular on the program, and asked Bredon if she could perform it, noting down the lyrics. From there, the mess begins.
Janet Smith “carried” the song when she moved to Oberlin College in Ohio and continued performing it. The Oberlin, which held concerts regularly, had as a guest Joan Baez in 1962, who was invited after her performance to a casual gathering in another room where Smith sang some songs from her repertoire. As happened two years before with Smith and Bredon, Baez asked Smith for the song and others she had played, and if she could send a tape to her manager. At no time they talked about the authorship of the song and her demo got without credits.
Shortly after that, while Baez included Babe I’m Gonna leave You on her album In Concert Part 1, 1962, Vanguard Records, the associated record label of Baez, sent a letter to Smith asking her whether she was the author of the song. So Smith contacted Bredon, who confirmed her authorship, put her in touch with Vanguard, and the matter was solved including the name of Anne Bredon in subsequent editions of Baez’s album and paying royalties.
Everybody was happy until one day in the 80s, Janet Smith heard a cover of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You that her son played at home. This was Led Zeppelin’s cover. Reviewing credits of the song she saw that it was credited as “Traditional, arr. by Jimmy Page”, thing that made her think and contact again Anne Bredon. Neither of them was aware about a band called Led Zeppelin, oblivious to their musical tastes; so with the permission of Bredon, Smith started the process.
Superhype, Led Zeppelin’s publisher, claimed that Jimmy Page heard Babe I’m Gonna Leave You from a copy of Baez’s album that does not included Bredon in the credits, what led him to think that it was just an old traditional song and thus they should share benefits at 50%. So they all agreed that and in subsequent editions of Led Zeppelin’s first album the song would appear credited to Anne Bredon, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Therefore, the distribution of benefits would be 50% for Bredon and 50% for Page and Plant.
We do not know whether any of the above-mentioned acted maliciously or not, but in any case it is good to know that the original composer gets what it belongs to him/her eventually, history of music has already enough plagiarism, and Led Zeppelin has a few ones.