The Story Behind The Songs

The Story Behind The Songs

The Story Behind The Songs

Ken Settle photo of Robert Plant. Ken talks about the story behind "Gallows Pole."

I LOVE the stories behind the songs.  Once a week, I choose one of our Throwback Thursday cuts and research the story behind the song.  Ken Settle is a Detroit photographer that has been getting classic moments from live Detroit shows for decades.  Ken also loves the stories.  I saw his Facebook post on the story behind “Gallows Pole” and I asked if I could share it with our readers.  Here’s Ken’s post (I added some sources, but these are Ken’s words).

Ken Settle on “Gallows Pole”

“Led Zeppelin’s version of “Gallows Pole” has always been one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs. The band released the tune on their 1970 album, Led Zeppelin III.
Originally an ancient traditional folk song called “The Maid Freed From The Gallows,” its root run back many moons.  Through the years though, the song was updated, and covered by many artists. The title became simply, “Gallows Pole.”
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were primarily influenced by two versions of the song–the 1939 version by Huddie Ledbetter, best known as Lead Belly. This version had the title of the song–likely a misspelling– as “Gallis Pole.”  Page and Plant were also very influenced by the 1962 version by Fred Gerlach.  Both the Lead Belly versions and the Fred Gerlach version relied on the sound of a 12-string guitar.
I am posting all three of these versions in the comments section (see below).  Give a listen to Lead Belly’s frantic, angry 12-string guitar playing.  He is practically tearing those strings off that guitar!  Keep in mind that Lead Belly used an old Stella acoustic 12 string from the ’20s or ’30s, that had an unusually long scale, which made the strings much stiffer and harder to play.  Most guitars in that era made use of very heavy strings as well, making Lead Belly’s 12-string guitar shredding even more impressive.

Doni’s side note to “Gallows Pole”

This is the only Led Zeppelin song that includes a banjo. Jimmy Page borrowed the banjo from John Paul Jones. Previous to this song, Jimmy Page had never played the banjo!

  • Led Zeppelin - "Gallows Pole"

  • Leadbelly - "Gallis Pole"

  • Fred Gerlach - "Gallows Pole"

  • Willie Watson - "Gallows Pole"

    More recently, folk/blues artist, Willie Watson, covered “Gallows Pole.”  What do you think of it?

  • John Jacob - "The Maid Freed From The Gallows"

    Here’s the original folk song.  The song is much older, but the earliest recording I could find was from the ’40s with John Jacob.  John hits some HIGH notes.

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