The Meaning of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”

Led Zeppelin have been viewed as such serious musicians that many never noticed the attempt at humor they made with “Immigrant Song”. Known for its badass rock arrangement and the battle cry in the chorus, the music is upbeat and primal and the lyrics are just… strange.

I’m not talking strange in a “Stairway to Heaven” way, either. Strange as in, here we have an English rock band singing as if they’re Nordic vikings making their medieval voyage to the West, in godly verse.

For those who don’t look highly upon Zeppelin, this may be seen as pretentious, but the truth is that at the time that Led Zeppelin released “Immigrant Song”, they were twenty-something year-old kids having the time of their lives, and they had just gotten back from a show in Iceland. Hence the song’s inspiration, and all the viking references.

Plant spoke about this with biographer Chris Welch for his 2015 book, Led Zeppelin: The Story of the Biggest Band of the 70s:

We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik, [Iceland,] and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike and the gig was going to be cancelled. The university prepared a concert hall for us and it was phenomenal. The response from the kids was remarkable and we had a great time. “Immigrant Song” was about that trip and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.

Robert Plant on the meaning of “Immigrant Song”.

Released as the opening track to their third album, 1970’s Led Zeppelin III, “Immigrant Song” set the mood for the record that was highly commercially successful, but a critical flop. It sparked the inspiration behind Led Zeppelin IV and the four famous symbols, but that’s a story for another day.

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

Let’s see what Robert Plant was on about in the fan-favorite, “Immigrant Song”, starting with the chorus that opens the song:

Ahh! Ahh!
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow

Chorus to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

As Plant explained, the “land of the ice and snow” that he refers to is Iceland. The nation is also known for having Polar Days in the summertime, when there are up to 24 hours of daylight, which is known as the “Midnight Sun”. It is also known for its beautiful hot springs.

Following the famous chorus, we have the first verse:

The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new land
To fight the horde, sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming

First verse to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

The “hammer of the gods” that Plant refers to here is Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor from Norse mythology. In this way he is saying that Thor will guide them to victorious conquests. The Vikings historically conquered Iceland, Greenland, parts of Eurasia, and finally moved on to North America.

Hammer of the Gods has been forever ingrained in the persona of the band with the publication of Stephen Davis’ popular Led Zeppelin biography in 1985, which the band absolutely hated.

When Plant refers to “Valhalla”, he is referring to the Norse Hall of the Dead, where fallen warriors go after death in battle to be honored by the god Odin. There is almost a desire to die in battle in this culture, as it is considered the highest honor, and it drove the men to fight vigorously and without fear.

Led Zeppelin live in 1973. Photo by Laurence Ratner.

Next is a refrain before another hit of the chorus:

On we sweep with threshing oar
Our only goal will be the western shore

Refrain from “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

Here we have a continuation of the themes presented in the first verse, one of conquering and heading to North America. Then, of course, we have the glorious chorus, followed by the second verse:

How soft your fields so green
Can whisper tales of gore
Of how we calmed the tides of war
We are your overlords

Second verse to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

In the second verse, Plant observes how the soft, green fields of Iceland have been home to many gory battles over time. The “tides of war” were eventually calmed by the victorious Norse people, who eventually became the overlords of the land.

This is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to Led Zeppelin’s “conquering” of Iceland when they performed there, as it must have felt like quite the milestone to be invited as guests of the Icelandic government, during a time when Led Zeppelin were arguably the kings of rock music.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin live in 1972. Photo by Robert Knight Archive / Getty Images.

After the second verse, the refrain comes yet again before Plant sings the third and final verse:

So now you’d better stop
And rebuild all your ruins
For peace and trust can win the day
Despite of all your losing

Third verse to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin.

The third verse is a tad more abstract, but it refers to the period of time after the Vikings had taken over the land. Here they are saying that it’s time to stop fighting, rebuild the cities and move forward together, if only the conquered could get over the fact that they lost time and time again.

Based on the era that the song was written, one of peace and love but during the highly politicized Vietnam War, we can also posit that the third verse is a message to all the people to stop fighting, lay down their weapons and learn to live in peace and unison.

Finally, we have the outro, during which the band breaks it down and Plant winds down with emotional chanting, bringing “Immigrant Song” to a close. Listen below.

School of Rock and “Immigrant Song”

“Immigrant Song” was famously used in the 2003 film School of Rock, starring noted rock fan Jack Black as struggling substitute teacher and guitarist Dewey Finn. He ends up finding that his students are musically-inclined and assembles a band of fourth graders to partake in a Battle of the Bands. The scene in question comes when Dewey excitedly drives the kids to their audition while “Immigrant Song” plays in the van.

This scene is notorious because Led Zeppelin had always been known to decline the use of their music in movies and television, but granted permission to Jack Black and director Richard Linklater after they sent the band a video of Jack Black begging them to allow it before an audience of crew and extras.

Watch the “Immigrant Song” scene from School of Rock below, and see the video they sent to Zeppelin below that.

Other Uses in Film

“Immigrant Song” has also appeared in a couple of Marvel films over the years. First, it was used in 2010’s Iron Man 2 during a badass battle scene. Then, it was used in 2017 as the theme song to Thor: Ragnarok, likely because of the “hammer of the gods” lyric.

How they managed to get Led Zeppelin’s permission to use the song is a mystery. Perhaps the band has gotten a bit more lenient over the years, or maybe they have a soft spot for battle scenes (and green dollar bills).

Check out the use of “Immigrant Song” in Iron Man 2 and Thor: Ragnarok below.

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