The closing track on Robert Plant's Band of Joy album is one of four credited to Plant and co-producer Buddy Miller. As soon as part of the lyrics were published by one of the journalists who attended the first private airing of the album on June 1, it became clear that the words were originally penned by poet Theodore Tilton in his 1866 work called "The King's Ring."
In the poem, a tale unfolds of a Persian king who drew lessons from the fact of man's inevitable mortality -- that fame and fortune are temporary, yet so are pain and disease. If this message is reflective of anything from the Led Zeppelin story, it is probably the quotation Ritchie Yorke, in his "Definitive Biography of Led Zeppelin," attributes to Robert Plant's father just after his grandson Karac died in July 1977: "All this success and fame, what is it worth? It doesn't mean much when you compare it to the love of a family."
The wonders of the Internet reveal Plant is not the first musician to have incorporated Tilton's words from "The King's Ring" onto an album. He was beat to the punch by Chuck Berry on what remains 31 years later the last studio album he's released, Rock It, from 1979. For the final cut of the album, Berry recites a somewhat modernized version of "The King's Ring" over a slow blues progression with piano and slide guitar. He called the track "Pass Away" to draw attention to part of the message.
Another track on the same Chuck Berry album includes further thoughts on mortality. It's on the upbeat blues tune called "Oh What a Thrill" that Berry sings, "Baby, you're so beautiful to want me here to stay/I would be here forever, but I gotta die someday/But I will be loving you, baby, when I pass away." Berry's still rocking and rolling today at age 83.
Plant's take on the poem is retitled "Even This Shall Pass Away." According to the same write-up on June 1 (by Richard Smirke for Billboard) that included a mention of the lyrics, Plant sings the lyrics. Berry merely spoke them, so it looks like Plant has written a melody line with which to carry the lyrics. Also, the track "culminat[es] in an extended instrumental outro." Well, so does Berry's "Pass Away." Perhaps this is to be interpreted as a tip of the hat to the old man, who did share the bill with Led Zeppelin at the Atlanta Pop Festival and the Seattle Pop Festival, both held in July 1969.
Band of Joy is the second studio album in a row on which Plant closes with a set of lyrics about death. Raising Sand, with Alison Krauss, ends with "Your Long Journey," which is about the preparation one undergoes at the time of losing one's partner, originally recorded by the husband-and-wife team of Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson.