Where does a song come from?
March 5, 2015 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Led Zeppelin’s Gallows Pole was released in 1970 on Led Zeppelin III. Written/arranged by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, The song finds its antecedents in traditional European folk songs filtered through American lenses.

Shawnee Gee (as part of her Murder Ballad Monday series) argues that the Plant and Page’s version of the song was influenced by several different variations of a traditional ballad, The Maid Freed from the Gallows (Francis J. Child collected this song in his famous 19th century collection of traditional songs as #95 - This link offers up lyrical variations. Compare to the Led Zeppelin lyrics ). In these songs, the protagonist is usually a girl or a woman who has lost a treasure (often a symbol of sexual purity) and must be ransomed or she will hang. This ballad - which may have first appeared in Finland (or Germany or Hungary or …) , spread across Europe, customized for each culture - emigrated to the US with the English and Scottish settlers and became a traditional American folk ballad that was captured and shared by song catchers, early record producers, and 20th century radio, and later rediscovered by the 1960s folk moment.

Gee traces the song name and theme back through the southern mountain folk traditions, in which the song variations have many names, notably Hangman. She also sees influences on Led Zeppelin’s version in Leadbelly’s The Gallis Pole (1940, the lyrics also include spoken interjections), a song has been shaped by southern Blues tradition and the experience of Black America in dealing with the law. Finally, she ties it to Folk Revival takes on the Hungarian folk song Anna Feher (which may also be one of the early European variations of The Maid Freed from the Gallows) in the forms of Judy Collins’ Anathea, a modern, American version (with traditional lyrics and a new arrangement . This is the traditional Hungarian tune without lyrics). Anathea inspired Bob Dylan’s Seven Curses. Dylan’s song may have inspired Plant and Page to switch from a woman on the gallows to a man, and to make the ending unhappy.

Meet the musical cousins:

The Maid Freed from the Gallows
John Jacob Niles (Southern U.S. Mountain Tradition, 1940)
Ariane Kolet (Traditional Folk, 2014)

Gallows Pole
Odetta (Folk Revival, 1963)

Golden Ball, another descendent of The Maid Freed from the Gallows with a positive twist
Rubus (Modern English Folk, 2009)

Jean Richie (Southern U.S. Mountain tradition, 1960s)
Peter, Paul, and Mary (Folk Revival, 1960s)
Bella from Bessarabia (traditional English Folk, 2008)
Grace Rolland (modern Folk, 2012)
The Smothers Brothers (comedic/Folk, 1960s)

The Prickle Holly Bush, an antecedent of Hangman
The Watersons (English Folk, 1981)
Mike McCann and Disi (Modern Folk, 2008)

The Briery Bush, an variation on The Prickle Holly Bush
Raymond Cooke (Childe-style , 2009)
Chris Ricketts and Sarah Danby (Modern Folk, 2009)

The Prickly Bush, an variation on The Prickle Holly Bush
Steeleye Span (Modern Folk)

There’s a lyric comparison of various foliage-related titles
posted by julen (28 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Amazing piece of research; thanks!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This post is good and you should feel good.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:57 AM on March 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

Wow! Always dug this song, never knew there was so much history behind it.
posted by selfnoise at 9:00 AM on March 5, 2015

Where does a song come from?

Always a good question with Zep.
posted by thelonius at 9:03 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

A fantastic collection! I love seeing this sort of variation on a theme, seeing how the music, the story, the tone changes with different interpreters.

I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin as a teen and ever since it has been interesting discovering their musical influences. The Leadbelly was particularly striking, and I look forward to exploring these other versions!
posted by mountmccabe at 9:06 AM on March 5, 2015

No one else really sings that song for me other than Odetta. And I'm a huge Led Zep fan.
posted by holborne at 9:06 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

This has always been more or less my favorite Zeppelin tune, thanks more or less to the opening, mournful guitar strains. Thanks for this.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:14 AM on March 5, 2015

Where does a song come from?

Every time there's a discussion about artists stealing or moral character and "inspiration versus theft" or what have you and whether or not we should still listen/watch/read them, I get up on my high horse ready to shout battle!

Then I remember my deep, unshakable love for Led Zeppelin and slink off the horse, clutching their music and baring my teeth.

But on the plus side, the music that, er, inspired them is always really awesome too. So thanks for this post! It made my morning.
posted by barchan at 9:18 AM on March 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

The original Murder Ballad Monday posts:

Maid Freed from the Gallows | Gallows Pole (Child Ballad 95)
The price, my dear, is you.
posted by zamboni at 9:24 AM on March 5, 2015

III is easily one of my favorite Zep albums, and I love this song especially.

Great Post!
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:38 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Impressive post. Well-played, julen!
posted by blucevalo at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2015

I did a whole MeFi music swap based on this kind of thing once - pop songs that were covers of traditional folk songs. Although, it could just as easily have been called "The Leadbelly Covers Collection" because easily half of what I found was people covering songs that Leadbelly had himself popularized. It actually got me wondering if Leadbelly shouldn't be categorized as a sort of folklorist himself, since a lot of his own songs were recordings of folk songs he'd been hearing himself.

Also, a friend of mine once got sent into a two-minute giggle fit when he heard Great Big Sea's cover of the Zep version.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:39 AM on March 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, thanks Zamboni!

I can't believe I didn't notice when I posted the "final" version of this post that I hadn't put those links back into the first paragrah. Because - of course - Gee did a lot of the footwork and deserves credit (and a bigger audience). I just had fun finding the music and lyrics and listening to different versions.

I think my favorite discovery doing this post was the Bella from Bessarabia version of Hangman - it really felt like an older rendition.

I've never felt my lack of linguistic ability more - I really wanted to post versions of the song in various European languages (Finnish, German, Italian, etc), but I couldn't vet them to make sure they were a related song because I foolishly studied Latin and Spanish in school.
posted by julen at 9:40 AM on March 5, 2015

I heard, and loved, a cover of this song by Telynor, and then by a semi-local musician at a renfaire, before I realized it was a Led Zep song.
posted by Foosnark at 9:46 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The sing out site is great. Here's another good entry on the Jock Yablonski murder
posted by destro at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2015

great post! Gallows Pole is my fav LZ song :)
posted by supermedusa at 9:48 AM on March 5, 2015

Great post.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:57 AM on March 5, 2015

There's also Almenda Riddle's version "Hangman Tree" that I first heard on Alan Lomax's Southern Journey's Bad Man Ballads. Similar to Richie's "Hangman" but much slower, dirge-like.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:15 AM on March 5, 2015

There is a splendid version on the Pine Valley Cosmonauts album The Executioner's Last Song. It is sung by Jon Langford.
posted by zzazazz at 10:26 AM on March 5, 2015

Led Zep just stole so much, so many times, and passed it off as their own that I'm actually struggling to pin down the style of track that is really 'them'.

I'm comparing them unfavourably in this respect with The Rolling Stones, who also ripped off everything for years, but then settled into their mature period with stuff like Sympathy for the Devil or Jumping Jack Flash, which could only have been created by them.
posted by colie at 10:33 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The most purely Led Zeppelin-y song of all is "Over The Hills and Far Away." I'm not aware of any of its bits being stolen from anywhere. But there's always a possibility. I'd say "Achilles Last Stand" also has a pretty distinctly Led Zeppelin-y sound as well.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:18 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

What a wonderful post!

The version that Page and Plant did on their "Unledded" show in MTV in the 90s as probably my favorite song from that set.

My mother was a huge Judy Collins fan, and her records were always a nice relief from my parents' usual rotation of earnest Christian acoustic singers. "Anathea" was my one of my favorites, in no small part because it was so damn dark, and I was a morbid little kid.
posted by bibliowench at 11:25 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Led Zep just stole so much, so many times, and passed it off as their own that I'm actually struggling to pin down the style of track that is really 'them'.

This makes no sense. True enough, much of the first two albums were - lets say "highly inspired" - but as you've pointed out, that wasn't that uncommon. In fact, it was pretty much business as usual. It's a long, proud, blues and folk tradition, and its Turtles and Stones all the way down.

Leaving that aside, outside of Zep I & II ( III, IV, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, Presence, In through the Out door, and CODA) pretty much everything was their work.

And really, what they did to those songs on I & II is amazing considering the source material.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:28 AM on March 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

While we're recommending cover versions, there's a fantastic version of Seven Curses on Ragged Kingdom, the June Tabor/Oysterband album from a few years ago.

I think of things like the Led Zeppelin covers as part of the folk process at work: people take the music and remake it in forms more familiar and current to them, bringing it into the musical conventions of the moment when the cover is made. The difference now is that we have recordings to compare the changes over time (and argue about authenticity, but that's whole 'nother can of worms).
posted by immlass at 11:35 AM on March 5, 2015

The most purely Led Zeppelin-y song of all is "Over The Hills and Far Away."

Having a think, I would pick When the Levee Breaks because it seems to contain all the great and ridiculous ingredients of the band (and don't get me wrong, I am totally a fan).


- Plagiarism but by now not giving a f*ck
- Extended form that works through sheer force of will rather than structural interest
- Drums gone mad and controlling the song (excellent)
- Vocals slightly embarrassed by themselves and the whole situation
- Huge
- Layered guitar parts seeking new treatments of dissonance

I guess it just passes the test of 'this song could not be anyone else' for me, unlike a lot of the early material.
posted by colie at 12:06 PM on March 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

When the Levee Breaks is a straight-up blues song…I couldn’t tell you who originally did it, but it definitely has precedent.

Misty Mountain Hop would be an example of a Zeppelin “original”.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 12:13 PM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

YES! I am so excited to go through these. Realizing the depth of Zeppelin's American folk influence is what finally made me a huge fan of theirs.

In fact, it was pretty much business as usual. It's a long, proud, blues and folk tradition, and its Turtles and Stones all the way down.

Yeah, this is my feeling too. This is how music gets made in the traditional music world; just look at all the variations of the Child ballad! It does get sticky when there are questions of intellectual property; I don't know the solution (other than hoping Creative Commons takes off in the music industry) but it's not as cut-and-dried as saying that Zeppelin aren't actually being creative if they're working off of riffs, concepts, and themes that started with other artists.
posted by capricorn at 12:31 PM on March 5, 2015

When the Levee Breaks is a straight up rip from a female Blues guitarist named Memphis Minnie and someone named Kansas Joe McCoy that was originally recorded in 1929.

I had a weird experience listening to this- I'd never heard it before, but know a number of traditional versions. I have to say, hearing it Zeppified is a little jarring. And I like those guys!
posted by Polyhymnia at 12:22 PM on March 6, 2015

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