New approaches to modern music: “Stairway to where?

First off, major props to Ardis “Ace” Parshall, Mormon Detective and blogger at the always-excellent Keepapitchinin, for her fast and (as usual) outstanding research work. Those of you who are familiar with her work on the Great Mormon Marijuana Myth know just what historical investigation skills she can bring to bear. That said…

Back in 1967, the LDS Primary (children’s) organization sent out to LDS wards and branches everywhere the program and materials for that year’s annual Primary Sacrament meeting (thank you, Ace, for tracking this down). The theme was “Stairway to Lasting Joy”, and the materials included the sheet music for a children’s hymn by that same name, with lyrics by Mabel Gabbott and music by Robert Cundick (who was organist for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the time). The hymn is interesting in that it’s written in a minor key and has a lyrical feeling to it; when the hymn was added to “Sing With Me”, the LDS Church’s hymnbook for the Primary organization, it included the notation “Moderately slow, smoothly (in the style of a folk song)”.

It really is beautiful; here’s a clip of a recent rendition by Brett Raymond, from his album “Primarily for Adults”:

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Last Sunday, my sweet wife Sandra and I arrived early for ward choir practice, and she sat down at the piano to practice some songs (she was substitution for Primary pianist later that day). She pulled out her copy of “Sing With Me”, and I asked her to play “Stairway to Lasting Joy”, since it’s one of my all-time favorite hymns. She did, and as she did, I thought to myself, “You know, there’s something kind of familiar about that song that reminds me of something else.”

So when I got home that evening (don’t ask — it was one of Those Church Days), I pulled up iTunes and played the following song:

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OK,  so “Stairway to Heaven” (written in 1970, released in 1971) is in 4/4 time (vs. 6/8 for “Stairway to Lasting Joy”), and it’s played slower, but still. In fact, you could sing “Stairway to Heaven” in 6/8 (or 3/4) time; try beating out the lyrics. In addition to the nearly-identical titles, both songs start with exactly the same words (“There’s a”). For that matter, “Stairway to Lasting Joy” contains a total of 69 unique words; of those words, 24 show up in the exact same form in “Stairway to Heaven”, while another 6 show up in variant word forms. That’s 30 out of 69 words; in other words, nearly half of the entire wordlist of “Stairway to Lasting Joy” shows up in “Stairway to Heaven”! And, of course, “Stairway to Heaven” came out just a few years after “Stairway to Lasting Joy”. That’s just too much to ask of coincidence.

My initial research has not yet established a connection between Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (the song’s composers) and the LDS Church (or, for that matter, Mabel Gabbott and Robert Cundick).  There may well have been an LDS branch in Gwynedd, Wales back in 1970, while Page and Plant were staying at Bron-Yr-Aur (and where “Stairway to Heaven” was allegedly composed).  Still, “Stairway to Lasting Joy” was included in the 1969 edition of “Sing With Me”, so that volume could well have been the source, especially given Led Zeppelin’s US tours during that time. Of course, there is the controvery as to whether “Stairway to Heaven” owes its melody to “Taurus”, but since “Taurus” was released in 1968 — after “Stairway to Lasting Joy” was sent to LDS congregations in the US and Canada — that fails to eliminate what could have been the original inspiration.

And, hey, if people are still peddling the Sidney Rigdon/Solomon Spaulding theory of the Book of Mormon’s origins, I figure this has just as much credibility, if not more.  ..bruce..

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6 thoughts on “New approaches to modern music: “Stairway to where?

  1. Heh, heh, heh … very funny! I can hardly wait for this rumor to spread. But really, to someone like me unfamiliar with either melody (er, either version of the same melody), they do sound very much alike.

    At the risk of slowing that spread: “Moderately slow, smoothly (in the style of a folk song)” — do you suppose that there could be a common folksong at the base of both versions, maybe a Welsh one that the LZ boys knew, and one that Robert Cundick may have heard during his mission? I haven’t got the slightest idea of how anybody would go about researching that.

    Thanks for the nice plug, too. {blushing}

  2. (Comment by djinn, left with me because she had trouble logging in:)

    This is a total threadjack, but I saw the post on “Adventures in Mormonism” about the correlation between Stairway to Heaven and “Stairway to Lasting Joy,” and your comment (hence this odd post.) They both seem to descend from the song, “Cry Me a River” written by the Scottish singer Davy Graham around 1959. A youtube clip, from 1959, can be found here.

    Comment by djinn — January 28, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Djinn,

    I can see the similarities between some of the guitar riffs from “Cry me a River” in Stairway to heaven. I don’t think there are any lyrics though, so, that can only muddle the connection between the two stairways. Very interesting topic.

  4. They both seem to descend from the song, “Cry Me a River” written by the Scottish singer Davy Graham around 1959.

    That’s an interesting observation, since “Cry Me a River” is a song that Robert Cundick was likely to have been familiar with (not to mentioned Jimmy Page and Robert Plant). Note, however, that Graham didn’t write “Cry Me a River”; it was written by Arthur Hamilton in 1953, and was intended as a ‘torch’ song for Ella Fitzgerald in a film role. It was recorded and released several times in the late 50s and the 60s. On the other hand, I really don’t hear many melodic similarities between “Cry Me a River” and “Stairway to Lasting Joy”. And, by the way, “Cry Me a River” definitely has lyrics, which have nothing to do with either “Stairway to Heaven” or “Stairway to Lasting Joy”.

    By the way, lest anyone be confused, my post above was written tongue firmly in cheek. I don’t think that “Stairway to Heaven” was in any way influenced by “Stairway to Lasting Joy”, any more than I think that the Book of Mormon was influenced by The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, in spite of the extensive parallels between the two works. I’m just poking fun, though this time indirectly, at the various efforts to explain the Book of Mormon by citing potential parallels and influences in other works, since I find those efforts profoundly flawed and unconvincing.

    Plus, it was a fun post to write. :-) ..bruce..

  5. Very cool post. I heard from a friend whose cousin was a missionary in Wales that a member said Jimmy Page and Robert Plant used to go to Primary when they were kids. I bet that’s the connection. :-)

    Okay, how about this: My wife’s acestory comes from the same town Robert Plant is from. Therefore he must have some connection to the Church. Right?

    (Tongue firmly in cheek)

  6. Your tongue may have been firmly in cheek, but it is an interesting thing to think about. Is it so far fetched to think that Plant or Page just might have been invited to a primary program by a neighbor? For me, primary programs are one of the highlights of the year, and there is an undeniable spirit there. Perhaps they felt something, and it resurfaced a few years later in a song? Stranger things have happened.

    In my book, miracles become miracles when we choose to have faith in them. If I can quote from Second-Hand Lions:

    Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

    We can debate whether things are true or not, but perspective is everything. What we believe is up to us. Just as long as when we are called to teach, we teach the doctrine, and not our own beliefs. :)

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