The Maid Freed from the Gallows
"The Maid Freed from the Gallows" is one of many titles of a centuries-old folk song about a condemned maiden pleading for someone to buy her freedom from the executioner. In the collection of ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the late 19th century, it is indexed as Child Ballad number 95; 11 variants, some fragmentary, are indexed as 95A to 95K. In the Roud Folk Song Index it is number 144. The ballad exists in a number of folkloric variants, from many different countries, and has been remade in a variety of formats. For example, it was recorded in 1939 as "The Gallis Pole" by folk singer Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, and - the most famous version - in 1970 as "Gallows Pole", an arrangement of the Fred Gerlach version by English rock band Led Zeppelin, on the album Led Zeppelin III.
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Variants
- 3 Origin
- 4 "Gallows Pole" and the era of recorded music
- 5 In literature
- 6 In television
- 7 Names
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
There are many versions, all of which recount a similar story. A maiden (a young unmarried woman) or man is about to be hanged (in many variants, for unknown reasons) pleads with the hangman, or judge, to wait for the arrival of someone who may bribe him. Typically, the first person (or people) to arrive, who may include the condemned person's parent or sibling, has brought nothing and often has come to see them hanged. The last person to arrive, often their true love, has brought the gold, silver, or some other valuable to save them. Although the traditional versions do not resolve the fate of the condemned one way or the other, it may be presumed that the bribe would succeed. Depending on the version, the condemned may curse all those who failed them.
The typical refrain is:
- "Hangman, hangman, hangman / slack your rope awhile.
- I think I see my father / ridin’ many a mile.
- Father, did you bring any silver? / father, did you bring any gold,
- Or did you come to see me / hangin’ from the gallows pole?"
- "No, I didn’t bring any silver, / no I didn’t bring any gold.
- I just come to see you / hangin’ from the gallows pole."
It has been suggested that the reference to "gold" may not mean actual gold for a bribe, but may instead stand for the symbolic restoration of condemned person's honor, perhaps by proving their innocence, honesty, or fidelity, or the maiden's virginity. Such an interpretation would explain why a number of the song's variations have the condemned person asking whether the visitors have brought gold or paid the fee. In at least one version the reply is: "I haven't brought you gold / But I have paid your fee."
The song is also known as "The Prickly Bush", a title derived from the oft-used refrain lamenting the maiden's situation by likening it to being caught in a briery bush, which prickles her heart. In versions carrying this theme, the typical refrain may add:
- O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
- It pricked my heart full sore;
- If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
- I'll never get in any more.
In some versions, the protagonist is male. This appears to be more prevalent in the United States, where the hanging of women was uncommon.
The crime for which the protagonist faces hanging is occasionally mentioned. The woman may be being held for ransom by pirates, or she has stolen something from her employer. Other instances tell of her having lost a treasured golden ball or indicate that she is being hanged for fornication.
The most extensive version is not a song at all, but a fairy story titled "The Golden Ball", collected by Joseph Jacobs in More English Fairy Tales. The story focuses on the exploits of the fiancé who must recover a golden ball in order to save his love from the noose. The incident resembles The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. Other fairy tales in the English language, telling the story more fully, always retell some variant on the heroine's being hanged for losing an object of gold.
In the Bob Dylan song "Seven Curses", it is not the maiden who is to be hanged but her father, for stealing a stallion. The woman offers to buy her father's freedom from the judge, who responds: "Gold will never free your father/ the price my dear is you, instead". The maiden pays the judge's terrible price but wakes the next morning to find that her father has been hanged, anyway.
The song may have originated in continental Europe. Some 50 versions have been reported in Finland, where it is well known as "Lunastettava neito". It is titled "Den Bortsålda" in Sweden ( "Die Losgekaufte" in German). A Lithuanian version has the maid asking relatives to ransom her with their best animals or belongings (crown, house, crown, ring, sword, etc.). The maiden curses her relatives who refuse to give up their property and blesses her fiancé, who does ransom her.
In a Hungarian version called "Feher Anna", collected by Béla Bartók in his study The Hungarian Folk Song, Anna's brother Lazlo is imprisoned for stealing horses. Anna sleeps with Judge Horvat to free him but is unsuccessful in sparing his life. She then regales the judge with 13 curses.
"Cecilia" is one of the best known and more diffused songs in the Italian popular music. With no reference to any curse, it tells a story not very different from those of "Feher Anna" and "Seven Curses". Cecilia's husband has been condemned to be hanged, and she asks the captain how it is possible to spare his life. The captain promise to save her husband if Cecilia sleeps with him, but in the morning Cecilia sees from the window her man has been hanged.
The song is also found in Northern Sami, titled Nieida Kajon sis, which tells a story that strongly resembles the Lithuanian version. The maid asks her relatives (father, mother, brother, sister, and uncle) to ransom her with their best belongings or animals (horse, cow, sword, crown, and ship).
Francis James Child found the English version "defective and distorted", in that, in most cases, the narrative rationale had been lost and only the ransoming sequence remained. Numerous European variants explain the reason for the ransom: the heroine has been captured by pirates. Of the texts he prints, one (95F) had "degenerated" into a children's game, while others had survived as part of a Northern English cante-fable, The Golden Ball (or Key). Child describes additional examples from the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Russia, and Slovenia, several of which feature a man being ransomed by a woman.
The theme of delaying one's execution while awaiting rescue by relatives appears with a similar structure in the 1697 classic fairy tale "Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault (translated into English in 1729).
"Gallows Pole" and the era of recorded music
Lead Belly version
Legendary folksinger Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, who also popularized such songs as "Cotton Fields" and "Midnight Special", first recorded "The Gallis Pole" in the 1930s. His haunting, shrill tenor delivers the lyrical counterpoint, and his story is punctuated with spoken-word, as he "interrupts his song to discourse on its theme".
Judy Collins and Bob Dylan versions
Judy Collins performed the song "Anathea" throughout 1963 (including a rendition at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival), credited to Neil Roth and Lydia Wood. It is thematically similar to the Hungarian "Feher Anna" cited above, even to the detail of the name of the brother (Lazlo). It appeared on her third album, Judy Collins 3, released in early 1964. Dayle Stanley's album A Child Of Hollow Times, also released in 1964, included an uncredited version of this song ("of Greek origin"), under the name "Ana Thea". Bob Dylan recorded a thematically similar "Seven Curses" in 1963, during the sessions for his Freewheelin' album. The song tells a similar story, but from the point of view of the condemned's daughter. Dylan's song has been recorded by many artists. The definitive folk version of the song is probably that by Nic Jones recorded as "Prickly Bush", which he performed live and is featured on the Unearthed album. The song has also been played by Spiers & Boden, and recorded by Odetta.
Derry Gaol/The Streets of Derry
An Irish version of the song, entitled "Derry Gaol" or "The Streets of Derry" (Roud number 896), has the young man marching through the streets of Derry "more like a commanding officer / Than a man to die upon the gallows tree". As he mounts the gallows, his true love comes riding, bearing a pardon from the Queen (or the King). It was first recorded by County Armagh singer Sarah Makem on The Folk Songs of Britain, Vol. 7: Fair Game and Foul (1961), and subsequently by Shirley Collins, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, June Tabor, Peter Bellamy and Spiers & Boden.
Led Zeppelin version
"Gallows Pole" cover
|Song by Led Zeppelin from the album Led Zeppelin III|
|Released||5 October 1970|
|Recorded||5 July 1970|
|Genre||Folk rock, blues rock|
|Writer(s)||Trad., arr. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant|
|Led Zeppelin III track listing|
The "Seven Curses" plotline is followed in perhaps the most familiar version today. English band Led Zeppelin recorded the song for their album Led Zeppelin III in 1970. The album is a shift in style for the band towards acoustic material, influenced by a holiday Jimmy Page and Robert Plant took to the Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in the Welsh countryside. Page adapted the song from a version by American Fred Gerlach, included on his 1962 album Twelve-String Guitar for Folkways Records. On Led Zeppelin III the track was credited "Traditional: Arranged by Page and Plant".
"Gallows Pole" begins as a simple acoustic guitar rhythm; mandolin is added in, then electric bass guitar shortly afterwards, and then banjo and drums simultaneously join in. The instrumentation builds up to a crescendo, increasing in tempo as the song progresses. The acoustic guitar chord progression (in standard tuning) is simple with a riff based on variations of the open A chord and the chords D and G occurring in the verse. Page played banjo, six and 12 string acoustic guitar and electric guitar (a Gibson Les Paul), while John Paul Jones played mandolin and bass.
Page has stated that, similar to the song "Battle of Evermore" which was included on their fourth album, the song emerged spontaneously when he started experimenting with Jones' mandolin, an instrument he had never before played. "I just picked it up and started moving my fingers around until the chords sounded right, which is the same way I work on compositions when the guitar's in different tunings." It is also one of Page's favourite songs on Led Zeppelin III.
Led Zeppelin would perform the song a few times live during Led Zeppelin concerts in 1971. Plant would sometimes also include lyrics in live performances of the Led Zeppelin song "Trampled Under Foot" in 1975.
In the Led Zeppelin version of the song, despite the bribes which the hangman accepts, he still carries out the execution.
Oh yes, you got a fine sister, she warmed my blood from cold,
She warmed my blood to boiling hot to keep you from the Gallows Pole,
Your brother brought me silver, and your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard to see you swinging on the Gallows Pole
As in the Dylan "Seven Curses" and many other renditions, the Led Zeppelin version is based on a variant in which the convict is male. This is evident when the convict's brother addresses the convict as "brother" rather than "sister" in the line, "Brother, I brought you some silver, yeah."
- Robert Plant: lead vocals
- Jimmy Page: six and twelve string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, banjo, backing vocals
- John Paul Jones: bass guitar, mandolin
- John Bonham: drums
The song has been recorded by numerous other artists, including A.L. Lloyd & Ewan MacColl, Odetta, Jean Ritchie, Almeda Riddle, Frank Proffitt, Charlie Poole, Peggy Seeger, Jimmy Driftwood, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Steeleye Span, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Nic Jones, Uriah Heep, Tim Eriksen, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Great Big Sea, and Neil Young.
The Smothers Brothers performed a comedy version in which the narrator is hung before he can finish the first verse, which appeared on The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers in 1962. Jasper Carrott repeated this version.
The Watersons recorded the song as "The Prickle Holly Bush" on their 1981 album Green Fields and frequently included it in their live performances.
Led Zeppelin members Page and Plant later recorded a version of "Gallows Pole" for their 1994 release No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded. They also released this track as a single. The song was performed regularly on the subsequent tour and featured Nigel Eaton on hurdy-gurdy.
In 2005, Robert Plant and his band Strange Sensation performed the song on the television show Soundstage. The performance was released the following year on the DVD Soundstage: Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation.
American singer/songwriter Stephen Molyneux has a version called "Lover to Go My Bail" on his 2013 album Called to Leave in which the true love walks onward, the protagonist hung.
The Shirley Jackson novel Hangsaman (1951) takes its name from the folk song and draws on its theme of a female protagonist seeking rescue from peril—in this case of a spiritual, existential, or psychological nature.
Season 1, episode 2 of the Netflix series Bloodline closes with Tex Ritter's rendition of "Gallows Pole", in which the male singer requests his father to bring gold and silver to save his son from being hanged, and the father replies that he's brought both, everything he has.
In addition to "The Maid Freed from the Gallows", "The Prickly Bush", and the more recent "Gallows Pole", variations of the song have been recorded or reported under more than a dozen names. These include:
- "The Gallis Pole"
- "The Gallows Tree" (Bert Jansch)
- "The Prickilie Bush"
- "Prickle-Eye Bush" (Bellowhead and Spiers and Boden)
- "The Prickle-Holly Bush"
- "The Briery Bush"
- "Hangman, Slacken"
- "Hangman, Slack on the Line"
- "Slack Your Rope"
- "Ropeman's Ballad"
- "The Weary Gallows"
- "Freed from the Gallows"
- "Maid Saved"
- "By a Lover Saved"
- "Down by the Green Willow Tree"
- "Girl to be Hanged for Stealing a Comb"
- "Derry Gaol"
- "Hold Your Hands, Old Man"
- "Old Rabbit, the Voodoo"
- "The Golden Ball"
- "Mama, Did You Bring Any Silver?"
- "The Sycamore Tree"
- The Child ballad "Geordie" also features a rescue from the gallows by a payment.
- Max Hunter, a traveling salesman, recorded and transcribed multiple variants of the song in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee between 1956 and 1976.
- The Jeff Beck Group released "The Hangman's Knee" on Beck-Ola (1969), which draws from the traditional ballad, which begins: "Hangman hangman/Slack your noose/slack it oh slack it/slack it for a while".
- The song "Renegade" (1979) by Styx, is a first-person narrative of a captured outlaw awaiting execution, lamenting, "Oh mama, I'm in fear for my life from the long arm of the law. Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don't have very long."
- The song "Hallowed Be Thy Name" (1982), by English heavy metal band Iron Maiden, briefly gives an intetpretation of life after death and describes the feelings of a condemned person just before their execution by hanging ("'cause at five o'clock/they'll take me to the Gallows Pole").
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- [dead link]
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- [dead link]
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- The Ballad of America, John Anthony Scott pages 207-208
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- Eleanor Long, "The Maid" and "The Hangman": Myth and Tradition in a Popular Ballad (University of California Press [Folklore Studies: 21], 1971, xiii+170 pp.) ISBN 0-520-09144-2.
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- Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, by Chris Welch, ISBN 1-56025-818-7.
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