Friday, September 24, 2010

Led Zeppelin -- "Gallows Pole" (1970)

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister
She warmed my blood from cold, 
Brought my blood to boiling hot 
To keep you from the gallows pole, 
Your brother brought me silver
Your sister warmed my soul, 
But now I laugh and pull so hard
And see you swinging on the gallows pole 

The first two Led Zeppelin albums were monsters, and I played them to death in high school.  Led Zeppelin III was released only a few weeks after I started college, and expectations for it were very high.  

Advance orders for the record were high, and was Billboard's #1-ranked album for four weeks.  But the critics didn't love it, and neither did the fans.  I would guess that you hear its songs on the radio much less frequently than you hear songs from previous and subsequent Led Zeppelin albums.

I guess you could call it the red-headed stepchild of Led Zeppelin albums -- it doesn't get as much love as the band's other albums.  For example, Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums ever places the first Led Zeppelin album at #29, and lists others by the group at #66, #70, #75, and #149.  But Led Zeppelin III doesn't crack the top 500.

(My apologies to those who have red-headed stepchildren and love them very much, or those who are red-headed stepchildren.  But as far as you in the latter group are concerned, I wonder if you're being honest -- are you really loved as much as the cute little blonde your father and stepmother had together?)

(If you think that is a politically incorrect statement, you should know that the original version of this is "beat them like a red-headed stepchild" -- a reference to a lopsided sports victory.  That goes a little far for my taste, so I preferred to say "beat them like a rented mule," which I think is much less offensive.) 

Why does the third Led Zeppelin album get no respect?  Led Zeppelin is sometimes characterized as a heavy metal or hard rock band, but  their music is quite diverse.  They recorded quite a few traditional folk songs, often with acoustic instrumentation.  Led Zeppelin III is viewed as an acoustic album, and it is true that it leaves a very different overall impression than the first two albums.  

The first two Led Zeppelin records also had some acoustic songs, and the third album had several "heavier" electric tracks as well.  What is didn't have was anything like "Whole Lotta Love."  As Robert Plant later said, 

Led Zeppelin III was not one of the best sellers in the catalogue because the audience turned round and said "What are we supposed to do with this?  Where is our 'Whole Lotta Love Part 2'?" They wanted something like "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath!  But we wanted to go acoustic and a piece like "Gallows Pole" still had all the power of "Whole Lotta Love" because it allowed us to be dynamic. 

Bron-Yr-Aur cottage
Many of the songs on the album were created at an 18th-century cottage in Wales called "Bron-Yr-Aur," where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant spent much of the summer of 1970, resting up from a North American concert tour.  The cottage did not have electricity, so Page broke out his acoustic guitar.   

"Gallows Pole" may be largely acoustic -- it uses not only a mandolin but also a banjo (I believe this was the only time Led Zeppelin used a banjo) -- but it sure doesn't sound acoustic.  Like a lot of Led Zeppelin songs, it isn't easy to classify.  I never considered Led Zeppelin one of my particular favorites, and I didn't buy any of their albums after the third one -- but they put out a phenomenal amount of very good and very distinctive music.  

It's not always easy to categorize a Led Zeppelin song -- is it blues? metal? hard rock? folk? -- but it's always easy to recognize a Led Zeppelin song.  They rarely sound like anyone else.  

One more thing before we get to "Gallows Pole."  Do you remember the cover for this album?  It featured a volvelle -- a rotatable paper disc covered with images that showed through the holes on the album cover (which was a gatefold cover -- one that opened up like a book) as you turned the disc.  For example, if you rotated the disc so Jimmy Page's face showed through one of the holes in the cover, you'd see the other band members' faces through the other holes in the cover.  If you turned it a little further, you'd see a whole different set of images.  

"Led Zeppelin III" volvelle

"Gallows Pole" is based on a very old folk song -- there are versions from many different countries (including a reported 50 versions from Finland alone) -- which is commonly referred to as "The Maid Freed from the Gallows."  In the monumental five-volume collection of English and Scottish ballads compiled by 19th-century folklorist Frances James Child, "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" is number 95 -- its variants are numbers 95A through 95K.

The song is generally sung by a young woman who is about to be hanged.  In the English versions, we're not told why.  Child thought the English versions were "defective" on this account.  (European variants usually do explain the reason for the imminent hanging -- often, the woman is being held for ransom by pirates.)  

She begs her executioner to hold off, promising that someone bringing a bribe is about to arrive.  The woman's father, mother, sister, and brother show up one by one, but none bring the gold or silver needed to bribe the hangman.

Eventually, however, the young woman's true love arrives just in the nick of time, bringing enough gold to save her from the gallows pole.  

Legendary folksinger Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter recorded a song titled "Gallis Pole" in the 1930s, and Judy Collins and Bob Dylan also recorded songs based on the folktale.  But the Led Zeppelin version was adapted from the song written by Fred Gerlach, although the credit on the record read "Traditional: arranged by Page and Plant." 

(Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism on numerous occasions.  A few months ago, songwriter Jake Holmes -- who later got into writing jingles, including "Be A Pepper" for Dr. Pepper -- sued Page for copyright infringement, claiming that he wrote "Dazed and Confused" and recorded it two years before it appeared on the first Led Zeppelin album.  Here's a link to Holmes's federal court complaint.)  

In Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole," a man (not a woman) is about to be executed.  He is disappointed when his friends arrive without any gold or silver for the hangman -- one explains "We're too damn poor to keep you from the gallows pole."

By the way, here's a photo of a primitive gallows, which may explain why it was known as a gallows pole:

Gallows pole

But the would-be victim's brother and sister come through for him big time.  The brother has some silver and he has some gold.  The sister takes the hangman to a "shady bower" and gives him something that many men rate higher than silver or gold.  (Personally, I rate silver at about 5 and gold at 8.  But being taken to a shady bower by the right sister can sometimes hit 9 or even 10.)

The hangman admits that the sister "warmed his blood to boiling hot" to save her brother from the gallows pole.  But he goes ahead and hangs the poor narrator -- seemingly just for grins.  Or because he can.  He's the hangman, after all. 

Bummer, dude.  MAJOR bummer!     

Here's Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole":

Here's Jake Holmes's "Dazed and Confused":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from iTunes:

Here's a link to use for Amazon:

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