Sunday, August 2, 2015

Led Zeppelin – "Black Dog" (1971)

Didn't take too long 'fore I found out
What people mean by down and out

The journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition include a number of references to Seaman, a large Newfoundland dog that Meriweather Lewis bought in Pittsburgh before embarking on that expedition.

Tradition has it that Seaman was a black dog.  But Newfoundlands can be black, black and white, or brown, and the expedition's journals do not say anything about Seaman's color.

Statue of Seaman
Historians believe that Seaman survived the 28-month, 7000-mile journey from St. Louis to the Oregon coast and back, and was still with Lewis when he returned to St. Louis with his men in September 1806.  But what happened to Seaman then?

James Holmberg, a leading Lewis and Clark scholar, thinks that Lewis still had Seaman when he went on his fateful 1809 trip from St. Louis to Washington, DC – a trip that ended prematurely when Lewis apparently committed suicide at an inn on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee.  

The title page of Alden's book
In 2000, Holmberg discovered a 1814 book titled A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions with Occasional Notes.  The author of that book was Timothy Alden, a clergyman and educator who was a respected member of several historical societies and who founded Allegheny College (which I visited with my son a few years ago).

Alden's book included the following inscription, which he said was from a dog collar in a museum in Alexandria, Virginia:

The greatest traveller of my species.  My name is SEAMAN, the dog of captain Meriweather Lewis, whom I accompanied to the Pacifick ocean through the interior of the continent of North America.

Timothy Alden
According to the Alden's book, Seaman was with Lewis when he took his own life:

The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable.  After the melancholy exit of gov. Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains; and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of interment.  He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master's grave!

A cynic might think that Alden's two-handkerchief tale is too good to be true, but Holmberg believes that there is no reason to doubt it.

Holmberg also believes that the collar may have been donated to the museum by none other than the second-ranking officer of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, William Clark.

William Clark
In 1812, a museum official wrote Clark to thank him for contributing a number of "curiosities" to the nascent collection.  The museum's records are incomplete, so there's no way to know whether one of the items that Clark donated was Seaman's collar (which was likely lost in the 1871 fire that destroyed much of the museum's collection).

We may never know for sure whether Seaman died while maintaining a vigil at his master's grave.  But James Holmberg believes that is a "creditable explanation" of Seaman's fate.

Lewis and Clark expert James Holmberg
Click here to read a 2000 article by Holmberg titled "Seaman's Fate."

One final aside about the Lewis and Clark Expedition: despite his love for Seaman, Meriweather Lewis apparently ate dog at times during his expedition when other kinds of meat were scarce.  (Clark reportedly could not bring himself to eat dog.)

One source says the members of the expedition consumed over 200 dogs, which they obtained from Indians.  (Some native American tribes viewed dog meat as a delicacy, while others forbade its consumption.)

Sir Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill, who suffered from recurrent episodes of depression, referred to the illness as his "black dog," and that term has become a common metaphor for depression.

But the Led Zeppelin song that I'm featuring today wasn't titled "Black Dog" because it was about depression.  Instead, the title is a reference to a nameless black Labrador retriever that was often spotted wandering around the grounds of the recording studio in rural England where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded.

"Black Dog" is rhythmically quite complex.  It was originally even more complex, but the band was forced to simplify it somewhat so they could play it live.

Here's "Black Dog":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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