It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” or “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a song first recorded by gospel blues artist Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. It is a solo performance with Johnson singing and playing slide guitar. The song has been interpreted and recorded by numerous musicians in a variety of styles, including Led Zeppelin in 1975.
“It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation. Johnson was blinded at age seven when his stepmother threw a caustic solution and his verses attribute his father, mother, and sister with teaching him how to read.
The context of this song is strictly religious. Johnson’s song is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle. An early review called the song “violent, tortured and abysmal shouts and groans and his inspired guitar playing in a primitive and frightening Negro religious song”.
In performing this song, Johnson alternated between vocal and solo slide-guitar melody lines, using a bottleneck (or sometimes a jackknife) on the first and second or sometimes third and fourth strings. His guitar is tuned to an open D chord with a capo on the first fret and he provides an alternating bass figure with his thumb.
English rock band Led Zeppelin recorded a rendition titled “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” for their seventh studio album Presence (1976). Adapted from Blind Willie Johnson’s song, the lyrics represent a more secular theme, with an electric rock music backing.
In an interview, guitarist Jimmy Page explained that group singer Robert Plant wanted to record Johnson’s song, so he developed a new musical arrangement, while Plant retained some of the original lyrics. However, Led Zeppelin biographer George Case maintains that Page was probably influenced by John Renbourn’s 1966 acoustic version of the song.
Led Zeppelin further developed and recorded the song during the difficult period they faced after Plant’s 1975 automobile accident in Rhodes. The incident left him with serious injuries to his ankle and leg and there was fear that he might not recover completely. The group recorded Presence in November 1975 at the Musicland Studios in Munich, Germany, while Plant was largely confined to a wheelchair.
Beginning with the Led Zeppelin North American Tour 1977, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” became a regular component of Led Zeppelin concerts, with performances at nearly every show up to the group’s final tour of Europe in 1980. A live version was filmed and recorded at Knebworth in 1979 and is included on the 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD. Their performance of the song with Jason Bonham at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena, London on December 10, 2007, was released in 2012 on the concert film Celebration Day. At the 2007 O2 performance, Plant joked that they first heard the song in a Mississippi church in 1932.
In a contemporary review for Presence, Stephen Davis of Rolling Stone described “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” as a “strong” song, showcasing an example of “fine rock” on Presence. In a retrospective review of Presence (Deluxe Edition), Andrew Doscas of PopMatters gave “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” a positive review, describing the track as “a behemoth made from bone-crunching basslines, a maniacal harmonica solo, and its memorable ‘call-and-response’ structure.” Reviewing the track in detail, Doscas stated it “serves as a paradigm for the state of the band’s reputation, as well as the album Presence. It’s a heavy, blues-rock track that like an avalanche grinds down everything in its path.” In another retrospective review for the reissue of Presence, Mark Richardson of Pitchfork gave “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” a positive review, praising John Paul Jones’ bass syncs with John Bonham’s kick drum patterns. Richardson further described the song as a “stop/start masterpiece”.