When Led Zeppelin released its first boxed set in 1990, most Zep fans probably thought they’d heard all the band’s studio recordings. After all, it was 10 years after Zep disbanded. What’s more, wouldn’t Coda (1982) have been the place to release any remaining tracks of value?
The emergence of “Travelling Riverside Blues,” Zep’s explosive take on a Robert Johnson song released as a promotional single in 1990, answered that question. By placing the track on disc 1 of the boxed set, Jimmy Page made it clear that he was highlighting the unreleased song.
In a 1990 interview quoted in Led Zeppelin: All the Songs (2018), Page spoke about the “speculation” in the air from the bootlegging of “Travelling Riverside Blues” over the years. “It was quite touching,” Page said. “So we decided to include it on the boxed set.”
But after fans heard the track and saw the accompanying video on MTV, many had to wonder why Zep hadn’t released it on one of their early albums. (The group recorded it in 1969.) In brief, Led Zeppelin forgot about the song shortly after recording it.
Led Zeppelin recorded ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ for BBC sessions and never looked back
In 1969, Led Zeppelin played five sessions for broadcast on the BBC, including two for John Peel’s Top Gear show. At one of the sessions, producers asked for an extra track. Though Zep hadn’t planned one, they decided to run through “Travelling Riverside Blues.”
As Page recalled it later, they played the backing track live on the spot — in a single take — just as you hear it. Since the BBC planned to air that Zeppelin set a few days later, they gave the band the opportunity to overdub parts on the live track. You didn’t have to ask Page twice.
Page recorded some more slide guitar to add on to “Travelling Riverside Blues,” and the track went out live on the air on June 29, 1969. Since the band had tossed off the song so quickly in the studio, no one gave it much thought as the years passed.
That’s where it sat (i.e., in the BBC vaults) for the next 20 years or so. Though hardcore Zep-heads were circulating copies (likely on cassette tape), the average fan couldn’t get their hands on a version until the boxed set release. But Page kept including it on subsequent Zep releases.
Led Zeppelin never tackled ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ at studio album sessions
If you want to place the BBC recording of “Travelling Riverside Blues” in the context of Led Zeppelin’s studio albums, the band laid down the track between the release of its eponymous debut (January ’69) and the October ’69 arrival of Led Zeppelin II.
By June ’69, Zep had recorded most of Led Zeppelin II, though the recording of “Thank You” followed the day after the BBC session that produced “Travelling Riverside Blues.” So the group never tackled their supercharged take on the Johnson song in sessions for a studio album.
If it weren’t for those ambitious bootleggers, Page might never have gone back to the BBC for the tapes of “Travelling Riverside Blues.” But that wasn’t the only unreleased track. “The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair” accompanied that and several other live cuts on the 1997 release BBC Sessions.
“Travelling Riverside Blues” also became a bonus track on future releases of Coda. If you’ve heard this track, you know why Page will keep sending it out with the other rarities on boxed sets and related offerings. You simply can’t beat 1969 Zep energy. It’s magical stuff.