Gallows Pole: John Jacob Niles, Leadbelly, and Led Zeppelin

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider a song that goes by many different names.  We’ll first review its origins as a traditional folk song, perhaps most commonly known as The Maid Freed From The Gallows. We will then feature a version by John Jacob Niles which he called The Maid Saved From Hanging. Next we will review a version by Leadbelly, who called it Gallis Pole. We’ll conclude with a version called Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin.

The Maid Freed From The Gallows:

Those of you who follow my blog know that my style is to begin with the original version of a song, followed by one or more covers. Well, there is no way we can produce the ‘original’ of this song, as it is a centuries-old traditional ballad. Versions of this song exist in Sweden, Germany, Lithuania, Romania – for crying out loud, at least 50 versions can be found in Finland!

Let’s outline a ‘generic’ version of the song.
A maiden about to be hanged (for unknown reasons) pleads with the hangman, or judge, to wait for the arrival of someone who may bribe him. The first person (or people) to arrive, who may include the father, mother, brother, and sister, have brought nothing and often have come to see her hanged. The last person to arrive, often her true love, has brought the gold to save her.

As this is an ancient folk ballad, there are scores of variations on this tale. In some versions the protagonist is a male rather than a female. In these versions, the female lover is often required to sleep with the judge or hangman rather than to provide gold or some other precious commodity (e.g., a crown, house, ring, or sword).

The fate of the hero(ine) also varies from song to song. In most versions, the heroine is freed after her lover brings the necessary gold. However, in other versions the person is hanged despite deliverance of the bribe. This is particularly common in variants where the heroine sleeps with either the hangman or judge in an attempt to free her man.

Here is a set of lyrics that describe the predicament; these lyrics are from the Led Zeppelin version of Gallows Pole. In this case, the prisoner is a male – and eventually he is hanged despite a bribe that is delivered by the man’s brother, in addition to the fact that the sister has apparently slept with the hangman.

Hangman, hangman
Hold it a little while
Think I see my friends coming
Riding a many mile

Friends, did you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends
To keep me from the gallows pole?
What did you bring me to keep me from the gallows pole?

In the famous collection of traditional ballads assembled by Francis Child in the late 19th century, the song called The Maid Saved From Hanging is indexed as Child Ballad 95.

John Jacob Niles and The Maid Saved From Hanging:

At this point we introduce the American composer and singer John Jacob Niles. He is particularly famous for his collection of American ballads, which he compiled in the 20s and 30s following a series of trips to Appalachia and the South. These songs were frequently variants of European traditional tunes, with emphasis on English and Celtic ballads. Niles also collected many African-American traditional songs.

Niles publicized many of these ballads through a series of records. He was known as the dean of American balladeers, and his work was extremely valuable to folk singers who frequently produced covers of his songs. Thus, artists such as Burl Ives, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary made much use of the collections of John Jacob Niles.

John Jacob Niles with one of his dulcimers.

John Jacob Niles with one of his dulcimers.

Niles generally accompanied himself on a dulcimer or lute.  He made many such instruments, often working from old specimens.  At left he is shown holding one of his dulcimers (he’s standing in front of a portrait of himself, also shown holding a dulcimer!)

Niles sang in a very high tenor; but he moved to a somewhat higher falsetto when he was singing a woman’s part. Or maybe Niles’ style was an imitation of countertenor vocals? It’s hard for me to tell, and from what I can find on the Internet, many people were puzzled at Niles’ highly theatrical vocal stylings. Anyway, here is Niles singing The Maid Freed From the Gallows.

As you can see, while the parents and friends of the condemned don’t bring the required silver and gold to appease the hangman, her sweetheart does. And we assume that his bribe does the trick.

Leadbelly and Gallis Pole:

Huddie Ledbetter was a black musician who grew up in Louisiana and Texas. He performed under his nickname Lead Belly; however, this is often shortened to Leadbelly, and we adopt this variant on his professional name.

Although he played several instruments, Leadbelly is best known for playing the 12-string guitar. His guitar work proved to be inspirational to many folk singers, particularly Pete Seeger, who co-authored an instructional book on 12-string guitar playing in the style of Leadbelly.

Although Leadbelly wrote a number of original songs, he is best known for his versions of several traditional songs. In addition to Gallis Pole, Leadbelly’s adaptations of several traditional folk songs became the ‘standard’ version that would subsequently be covered by scores of musicians. Examples of these are such classics as Goodnight, Irene; Midnight Special; Cotton Fields Back Home; and Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

Embed from Getty Images

As you can see from the photo above, Leadbelly was a large and imposing figure. His booming voice, accompanied by a larger-than-normal Stella 12-string guitar, gave his songs a powerful impact. Unfortunately, Leadbelly was frequently in trouble with the law, and he served several prison terms for various offenses, in at least two cases for stabbing a man.

While in prison Leadbelly frequently played for his fellow inmates and participated in concerts there. In 1933 he was ‘discovered’ by the noted folklorists John and Alan Lomax in Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm. In 1934 Leadbelly was released from prison after the Lomaxes delivered a petition to the governor, accompanied by Leadbelly’s recording of Goodnight, Irene.

After Leadbelly was released from prison, John Lomax brought him on tours with other folk singers. Although Lomax had good intentions, significant friction developed between him and Leadbelly. Lomax wanted to capitalize on Leadbelly’s past life as a convict, so he asked Leadbelly to perform dressed in prison garb. The proud Mr. Ledbetter bristled at being asked to appear on stage in such a manner.

Unfortunately, much of Leadbelly’s subsequent publicity appeared to dwell on his past brushes with the law and his dangerous persona. For example, Life magazine ran an article in August, 1937 with the patently racist title Lead Belly – Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel. The article showed a picture of Leadbelly’s hands strumming a guitar with the caption ‘these hands once killed a man.’ Do you still think ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity?’

Here is audio of Leadbelly singing Gallis Pole. This is from a live performance in Washington, D.C. in August 1940.  The song features some terrific, vigorous 12-string guitar playing by Leadbelly, and his booming voice really dominates the song.

This song is delivered in a ‘talking blues’ style.  Leadbelly spends a fair amount of time providing the audience with background to the prisoner’s story. In this version, the father and mother of the prisoner do bring silver and gold as requested. On the other hand, the ‘so-called friends’ bring nothing, and have traveled here for the sole purpose of seeing the person hanged.  By the way, it is not clear to me the exact purpose of the bribe – from Leadbelly’s account, it sounds as though the bribe may serve only to delay the hanging, and not to prevent it?

Like many folk singers of his day, Leadbelly made very little money from his recordings; he had to rely on touring for the bulk of his income. After yet another stint in prison, Leadbelly moved to New York where he became a regular fixture at concerts with people like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White. He appeared on a nationally-syndicated radio program produced by Alan Lomax, and he recorded several folk albums.

In 1949 Leadbelly began a tour of Europe, but he had to return to the U.S. when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He subsequently died late in 1949 and is buried in Louisiana. In 1988, Leadbelly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their `Early Influence’ category.

Led Zeppelin and Gallows Pole:

We previously discussed Led Zeppelin in our blog post on Hello Mary Lou, so I will briefly review the band and their legacy here.

In 1968 Jimmy Page set about to create a new blues ensemble. He eventually settled on a quartet with himself on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, John Bonham on drums and vocalist Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin became a rock supergroup, as each of the members of the group is considered to be one of the world’s greatest on their particular specialty.  Below is a photo of Led Zeppelin performing at the Bath Festival in June, 1970. From L: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.

Embed from Getty Images

Led Zeppelin were an incredibly successful combo; they combined tremendous virtuosity with an extraordinary musical range. Although they were known as the quintessential hard-rock band, initially focusing on heavy-metal covers of blues standards, they also produced exceptional acoustic music.

Jimmy Page, who wrote most of the group’s songs, is a superb guitarist with unbelievable range. He is able to blast your eardrums with heavy-metal power chords, but also to produce lovely and creative acoustic riffs. Page has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once with the Yardbirds and a second time with Led Zeppelin.

Robert Plant’s vocals ranged from beautiful high, clear notes to ear-splitting shrieks, just perfect for combining traditional blues with hard rock. And John Bonham combined tremendous power and speed on the drums with a unique ability to anticipate the beat in a song.

Let’s begin with the audio of Led Zeppelin’s performance of Gallows Pole that appeared on their 1970 Led Zeppelin III album.


The genesis for this and other songs on Led Zeppelin III was a trip by Page and Plant to the Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales. There, the two became interested in expanding their repertoire to include acoustic songs, and also in Celtic music and traditional folk tales.

Page then adapted Gallows Pole from a version by Fred Gerlach that appeared on a Folkways Records album from the early 60s. The Led Zeppelin version begins with Page strumming on acoustic guitar while Plant sings. Shortly thereafter mandolin and bass are added, followed by banjo and drums. The pace steadily increases while the music builds to a crescendo. Zeppelin really rock out on this one. John Paul Jones is featured on bass and mandolin on this piece, while Jimmy Page appears on acoustic 6 and 12-string guitar, electric guitar and banjo.  And John Bonham really goes to town, savagely beating the drums.

In addition to their stunning virtuosity, Led Zeppelin members were also known for their legendary sexual excesses, and alcohol and drug usage. In the late 70s, Jimmy Page’s heroin use apparently became sufficiently incapacitating that John Paul Jones took over much of the band’s composing and producing duties. Tragically, in October 1980 John Bonham died from alcohol-related asphyxiation after reportedly consuming 40 shots of vodka.

Following that, the surviving members of the group decided to disband rather than continue on without Bonham. The band has occasionally reunited for short periods or for special occasions. Page and Plant went out on tour in the 1990s, and each of the surviving members continues to produce records and to tour with other groups.

I particularly like the upcoming video of Page and Plant performing Gallows Pole, because it features an ancient and fascinating musical instrument, the hurdy-gurdy.

Here is the entry from Wikipedia describing how the hurdy-gurdy operates: it
produces sound by a crank-turned, rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow … Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents — small wedges, typically made of wood — against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. … It has a sound board to make the vibration of the strings audible.

A hurdy-gurdy.

A hurdy-gurdy.

At left we show a hurdy-gurdy. You can see the crank on the left and the keyboard of the instrument on top. In addition to the strings that are plucked to produce various tones, there are drone strings that make the hurdy-gurdy sound much like a bagpipe.

The hurdy-gurdy originated sometime before the 11th century, and was widely popular in Renaissance music. However, by the 18th century musical tastes moved to instruments with greater polyphonic capabilities; as a result, the hurdy-gurdy became more commonly associated with lower-class music, resulting in a German nickname for the instrument that means peasant’s lyre.

The following video is from the 1994 Jimmy Page and Robert Plant: Unledded tour – as far as I can tell, `Unledded’ stood for ‘without John Paul Jones.’ Here Page and Plant appear on the Jools Holland cable TV show. The hurdy-gurdy, played by Nigel Eaton, features prominently in this version of Gallows Pole.

Pretty darn nice, huh? Led Zeppelin manage to convert a traditional folk song to a hard-rock anthem. In addition to the hurdy-gurdy, this song also includes a banjo – I challenge you to find another hard-rock song that features both of those instruments. And by the way, have you ever before heard the refrain “See saw, Margery daw” in a hard-rock song?

As usual, Page and Plant bring some exceptionally creative touches to this song. Robert Plant shows off his incredible vocal range, while Jimmy Page strums away on a double-neck guitar (reminding me of the classic joke – `Why do you need a double-neck guitar?’ `So you can rock – and roll!’).

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The Maid Freed From the Gallows
Wikipedia, John Jacob Niles
Wikipedia, Lead Belly
Wikipedia, Led Zeppelin
Wikipedia, Jimmy Page
Wikipedia, Hurdy-gurdy

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Folk music, Heavy Metal, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Gallows Pole: John Jacob Niles, Leadbelly, and Led Zeppelin

  1. Pingback: Rock Island Line: Leadbelly, Lonnie Donegan, and John Lennon | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pieter de Haan (Amsterdam) says:

    Very interesting historical story!
    What about Rory Gallagher’s version?


  3. Tor Ivar Nilsen says:

    Great story. And me who always thought ‘hurdy-gurdy’ was a joke on the swedish language, coming out of The Muppet Show … 🙂


    • Tor Ivar — ‘hurdy-gurdy’ doesn’t sound like a real word, does it? But apparently the instrument dates back to the 11th century, and the name from the 18th century (it’s supposed to represent the sound made by the gears in the instrument).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.