Is it racist to like Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song"?

Hey now, the Purple People Eaters made it until about 1980, even if they kept losing when it counted.

I must say all those years back during my days of discovering their work I was like “wait, what…?”

I suspect a very generous approach to licensing by the rights-holders.

I believe this is what best sums it up.

Parsing songs minutely for ‘racism’ that isn’t obvious is a fool’s errand. There are lots of valid songs fhat make important points even if the subject of the song is a racist.

Is this a racist song?

The song is about a confederate soldier who lost the war, and is living with the aftermath. The larger theme is the destruction of war. On its face, a simplistic reading would be that this ‘glorifies’ the south. But the artist, Warren Zevon, also wrote this:

That song tells the story of people caught in the Mexican Revolution - specifically, the people who had to flee their homes when Americans landed in Veracruz in 1914. If anything, it’s anti-imperialism and pro-Zapatista, which was the left-wing agrarian revolutionary movement headed by Emiliano Zapata.

The common thread between these songs is that they tell the story from the losing side. Zevon wasn’t interesting in glorifying war or imperialism, he was interested in telling the stories of the people who suffered from them and their aftermath.

Both of those songs are wonderful. Both could easily be found ‘problematic’ with a shallow reading (or an intense look for ‘troubling’ ideas). Let’s not do that.

Uh, you think Warren Zevon’s “Dixieland” lyric is about an actual survivor from the Confederate Army in the years after the Civil War? The narrator who’s predicting that “I’ll be some old man in the road somewhere, Kneeling down in the dust by the side of the interstate”, and talking about what a “high school band” was playing?

Given that the US interstate highway system didn’t come into being till the mid-20th century, and that the “high school band” likewise didn’t become a standard cultural trope until nearly that late, I think your interpretation of the intended historical setting of the song is way off base, irrespective of what your interpretation of the song’s intended spiritual message may be.

It’s both. It sort of jumps back and forth in time. Or did you think there are still Southerners looking around to see when reconstruction funds would appear? And he sees the ‘scorched Earth all around’. Last time I was in the south I didn’t see a lot of scorched earth from the civil war.

Also, from the narrator’s standpoint, he says he doesn’t want to become some old man kneeling in the dust by the side of the interstate. In fact, rebel soldiers would have been old men when the interstate highway system came through their state. I think the interstate line is more about showing how ‘the south’ went from its dream of being independent to being absorbed into the nation. The interstate highway system is a good metaphor.

The narrator talks about being hopelessly outnumbered, hearing the bugles call, and his mates swearing to stand or fall together. He was clearly a participant in the war.

Hmmmm, well, one of the things that makes poetry poetry is the multiplicity of interpretations, of course. But to me, it makes a lot more sense for the narrator to be a 20th-century southerner who is looking back to the historical “we” when he sings “We were hopelessly outnumbered, It was a lost cause all along, But when we heard the bugles call, We swore we’d stand or fall together right or wrong”, than for him to be an actual Confederate Army veteran somehow precognitioning the interstate highways and high school bands of the 1940s and beyond.

Aside from that one line about the interstate (and the bands I guess, although I had no idea school bands weren’t around then, and maybe Zevon didn’t either, or didn’t care), everything else in the song is contemporaneous with the immediate aftermath of the civil war, For example, the antagonist doesn’t see any promised reconstruction, just ‘the scorched earth all around’. There hasn’t been scorched earth in the south for a century or more, and reconstruction funds have not been an issue in the south for about as long.

Interestingly, I just found out fhat the last confederate soldier died in the same year that the interstate highway act was written. I wonder if Zevon read that, because it’s hard to imagine a better metaphor than having the last ‘protector of the south’ die in the same year the federal government passed a plan to link all the states through a federally funded road network.

But your last point is well taken. I think your modern interpretation of the song is totally valid, absent Zevon being here to tell us what he was thinking. But that goes to my larger point, which is that it’s not hard to find your own meaning in complex songs - which a lot of people are doing when they put a song or poem or book under a microscope to suss out ‘hidden racism’.

I could easily find ‘racism’, or classism, or any number of ‘problematic’ ideas in both of the songs I listed. For example, the people in ‘Veracruz’ are clearly wealthy (‘take the servants and ride west’…), So I could read the song as being a lament that rich people had to suffer when the peasants get uppity. I could probably also accuse Zevon of stepping out of line by writing about the people of Veracruz while being white. I could read ‘Renegade’ as a lament for a better, racist culture, and therefore a racist song. I know neither was true, knowing Zevon’s larger catalog (he was no right-winger). But a casual reading of either song could easily lead someone to believe that they are racist or otherwise problematic, especially if that’s what their mindset is before they start listening.

Then there’s ‘Excitable Boy’…

Yup, undeniably true. And I definitely agree that the “Dixieland” narrator is, at the very least, passionately identifying his modern self with what he thinks of as the oppressed defeated post-Confederate South of the Reconstruction period. Whether he’s supposed to be perceived as presenting a reliable and/or sympathetic narrative is another question of interpretation.

I agree

Huh, that’s funny - my GF, who is Bangladeshi-British, was talking literally this afternoon about how brilliant that song is. She’s pretty aware of racism. If this song was racist, she’d have spotted it.

You get that the song is warlike because it’s Plant’s interpretation of the Viking perspective and not because Plant is holding up violence as a worthy ideal, right? Plant has always been deeply interested in mythology and mysticism. “The Immigrant Song” grew out of that (and yes, shortly after a concert in Iceland), as did many of his other compositions. He’s a good-hearted bloke who recently described his experiences with family and friends during the pandemic this way: “…we work as communities and we’re conscientious and thoughtful about caring for people who are not quite so strong as others.” Hardly the type of person who’d encourage violence.

If there are people “using this very same language” in destructive ways, it’s further proof that some people aren’t very bright and others project their own warped morality on whatever they hear. Charles Manson thought the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” predicted a race war. Knowing he was wrong, would you feel guilty about listening to the song? Don’t give malevolent idiots this kind of power.

We’ve veered in an interesting direction. I want to respond to @Sam_Stone who quoted Warren Zevon about a Confederate soldier. I took those lyrics as being somewhat metaphorical rather than literal. A contemporary speaker who’s referencing Confederate imagery to express a personal sense of despair and loss.

Is it “any more wrong” to like this song than it is to like watching reruns of the Jeffersons or All in the Family?

Both of those shows were clearly anti-racist in intent. People seem less sure about the Immigrant Song.

Though again I say the question is not whether it is wrong to like it. That, I think, distracts from the ability to analyse a work for problematic parts. It removes objectivity as people get personally attached.

I was curious as some have said that “poking fun” at a racist, was in itself racist. (which I thought was rubbish but who knows how it can be perceived)

It’s not racist to mock a racist, but it’s disingenuous to proclaim that their clownishness somehow proves that the rest of us are superior people.

Maybe that was the angle.

I’d just like to note that tying “Immigrant Song” to any real-world Vikings is, IMHO, a fool’s errand. Remember, Led Zep were major fantasy nerds - they wrote songs about Tolkien before it was uncool. “Immigrant Song” is more about the concept of Vikings than it is about the actual Vikings; it’s essentially a Frank Frazetta painting in song form.