The Lord of the Rings landed on shelves in the mid-1950s, and it wasn’t long before musicians latched onto the magical stories as a major source of inspiration for their work. In the late 1960s, Gandalf, Gollum, and other colorful characters started cropping up—to varying degrees of subtlety—in songs of every genre, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works continued to be popular reference material for songwriters in the following decades. Here are 11 of the most memorable tracks, from Led Zeppelin’s rock ‘n’ roll classic “Ramble On” to Flight of the Conchords’s riotously funny “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring.”
1. “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin
Robert Plant’s well-documented affinity for Tolkien can be heard in several Led Zeppelin tracks, including “Misty Mountain Hop,” “The Battle of Evermore,” and “Ramble On,” which features the following stanza:
“’T was in the darkest depths of Mordor I met a girl so fair But Gollum, and the evil one Crept up and slipped away with her.”
If Plant’s Middle-earth references in “Ramble On” seem a bit too blatant, he has a ready-made defense: “I just want to hold up my hand and say, ‘OK, I was 21 when I wrote that,’” he told the Santa Barbara Independent in 2013. Plant has also expressed some regret that he didn’t leverage his rocker chops for important causes more often during the band’s heyday. “My peer group were writing substantial pieces of social commentary, and I was willowing along the Welsh borders thinking about Gollum,” he told Planet Rock Magazine in 2019. He still likes “Stairway to Heaven,” though.
2. “I Think I Understand” by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s 1969 song “I Think I Understand” features the line “Fear is like a wilderland”—a reference to Tolkien’s Wilderland, a northern swath of Middle-earth that houses the forest of Mirkwood. It’s an obscure enough term to make Mitchell’s mention seem coincidental, but she confirmed its origin while introducing the track at the 1969 Mississippi River Festival: “My favorite character, of course, was a lady wizard by the name of Galadriel. And when the travelers came to her kingdom before they had to venture off into very dangerous places and everything, she gave them a vial of light and she said ‘Take this vial and whenever you're in a dark place take it out.'”
Mitchell interpreted Galadriel’s gift as a metaphor for “a memory of a beautiful time” which would help them brave the “hoary monsters” of the Wilderland. “Just like life,” she explained. Mitchell was so taken with Tolkien’s fantasy tales that she even wrote him letters and named her music publishing company Gandalf Publishing.
3. “Rivendell” by Rush
Toronto rock band Rush embraced Middle-earth magic in 1975 with “Rivendell,” a mellow acoustic track that imagines the home of Lord Elrond as “a place you can escape the world / Where the dark Lord cannot go / Peace of mind and sanctuary by loud water’s flow.” It’s an apt description written by a bona fide fan: Rush frontman Geddy Lee even appeared in the 2005 documentary Ringers: Lord of the Fans to talk about Tolkien’s indelible impact on his songwriting.
4. “Lothlórien” by Enya
Enya will forever be linked to Middle-earth for her musical contributions to Peter Jackson’s 2001 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In addition to her Oscar-nominated song “May It Be,” which plays during the credits, she also recorded Arwen and Aragorn’s theme “Aníron,” which can be heard during the Council of Elrond. But the Irish singer’s connection to Tolkien actually predates that score by about a decade: Her 1991 album Shepherd Moons features an instrumental track called “Lothlórien,” inspired by Galadriel’s woodland kingdom. In fact, her record label had asked her if she wanted to be involved in Jackson’s films because it was known that she and her lyricist, Roma Ryan, were “terribly big fan[s]” of Tolkien’s trilogy.
5. “Nimrodel / The Procession / The White Rider” by Camel
Camel’s three-part, nine-minute epic from their 1974 album Mirage was a (mostly instrumental) retelling of Gandalf’s transformation from Grey to White, but the progressive rockers didn’t stick with Tolkien for long. “I’d read The Lord of the Rings like everyone does, and I’d written ‘The White Rider’ … which was inspired by Gandalf and all that stuff,” Andy Latimer told Prog in 2015. “As we were recording it we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make a whole album based on a story?’ So then we all went off trying to find a good book to base it on.” They considered a couple books by Hermann Hesse before landing on Paul Gallico’s 1941 novella The Snow Goose. (Gallico threatened to sue, so the band changed the album’s name from The Snow Goose to Music Inspired by The Snow Goose before its 1975 release.)
6. “The Wizard” by Black Sabbath
Gandalf was a real wellspring of inspiration for all types of ’70s musicians, including the godfathers of heavy metal. Listeners have long assumed that the titular character with “funny clothes” and a “tinkling bell” from Black Sabbath’s 1970 song “The Wizard” was Tolkien’s benevolent sorcerer, which bassist Geezer Butler has confirmed. “I was reading The Lord of the Rings at the time, and I just based the lyrics on that—Gandalf,” he told Metal Sludge in 2005.
7. “Songs of the Quendi” by Sally Oldfield
Folk singer Sally Oldfield’s deep knowledge of Middle-earth is on full display in 1978’s “Songs of the Quendi,” a four-part composition inspired by early Elven history. Her lyrics reference the Moriquendi, Elves who “come from the darkness”; Laiquendi, who “come from the green lands”; and Calaquendi, who “come from the clear light.” Oldfield, known to drop a few made-up words in her songs, was particularly influenced by Tolkien’s “beautiful Elven language … containing echoes of his erudite knowledge of ancient languages of the world.”
8. “In the House of Tom Bombadil” by Nickel Creek
Frodo and friends’ brief but unforgettable stopover at the house of Tom Bombadil in The Fellowship of The Ring established the character of Bombadil as one of Tolkien’s most intriguing. In the book, the ancient, enigmatic Bombadil lives in his own little world and often communicates in song—making him an especially suitable target for musical interpretation. Americana band Nickel Creek captured his essence with “In the House of Tom Bombadil,” a jaunty, fiddle-heavy instrumental from their self-titled album in 2000.
9. “This Day We Fight!” by Megadeth
After penning “How the Story Ends”—based on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine was toying with the idea of writing a song about the drums and flags used to signal retreat on ancient battlefields. But since “The Drums and the Flags” seemed like a “stupid title,” he got to thinking about Aragorn’s impassioned speech at the end of the 2003 film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. “[Aragorn] goes, ‘We may die tomorrow, but not today. This day we fight,” Mustaine told Rolling Stone. “I thought, ‘That’s a very moving battle speech.’”
10. “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” by Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy launched his pleasantly bizarre music career in 1966 with Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space, which focused on space-related tracks that he sang as his Star Trek character. For 1968’s Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, he branched out a little. One side was still Spock-specific, but the other featured covers of popular numbers like Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.” That side also featured “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” a downright goofy retelling of Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit. “I thought it was very charming and I was very interested in [The Hobbit] stories,” Nimoy said in a 2003 interview. He was charmed enough to film a video for the song, too.
11. “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring” by Flight of the Conchords
While Nimoy left it up to listeners to decide if his Tolkien-inspired track was a massive joke, Flight of the Conchords’s Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement made it clear that theirs most definitely was. Not only does “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring” spoof Frodo’s trek to Mordor—complete with some memorable lines from Jackson’s movies—it also spoofs all the music genres so influenced by Tolkien’s work in the past, from folk to heavy metal. (There’s even a rap verse, just for fun.) The song appears in “The Actor,” an episode of the duo’s HBO series, and they’ve performed it for live audiences, too. McKenzie was also an extra in a few of Jackson’s Tolkien films, though he didn’t get to sing.