Q: Can you tell me the origin of Led Zeppelin’s song, “Gallows Pole”?
A: As is obvious from their music, the members of Led Zeppelin were heavily influenced by American blues. They mined a number of early blues songs from a variety of artists for song lyrics as well as melodies. But musicians have been doing this for millenia, taking songs from other cultures or traditions and infusing them with their own interpretations, often taking the underlying original into new musical territories. An example of this is the song you mentioned, “Gallows Pole,” from their 1970 album, “Led Zeppelin III.” The song originally was an old English ballad that migrated across the Atlantic and was picked up by such bluesmen as Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly’s version, called “Gallis Pole,” was recorded in 1939. It tells the tale of a man condemned to swing from the “gallis pole.” But, before the man is executed, his family members try to buy his freedom by paying the hangman with silver and gold. Lead Belly’s song ends ambiguously, but we’re left with the impression that there is at least a chance that the man isn’t hanged. Led Zep’s version, however, leaves nothing unresolved. In their version, the man’s friends and siblings make the same plea for mercy. The condemned man asks his sister to take the hangman by the hand and lead him to “some shady bower.” When the hangman returns, with a smile on his face, rather than letting the man go, he tells the condemned man that “I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole.”
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