© Copyright Richard Crofte
In the last post on Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole
,” we looked at how a centuries-old English tale about a fair maiden who loses a golden ball evolved into two different stories – one with a fairy tale ending in which the maiden is rescued by a prince and one with a nightmare ending in which the maiden is either a) threatened with execution by hanging for losing the ball or b) tries unsuccessfully to rescue a relative from hanging by giving herself to the hangman as a sexual bribe. The hangman accepts the bribe, but executes her loved one anyway, turning the tale into one about a cold-blooded murder:
Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile
Tell me that I’m free to ride, ride for many a mile,
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
In today’s post, I’ll look at how, in making this a song about sexual bribery and murder, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant incorporated details from a third, even older European tale – but lifted them from murder ballads sung by some of the greatest twentieth century American folk and blues singers (who, in turn, were assisted by a Hungarian composer). I’ll also take a look at how, in so doing, Led Zeppelin’s version illustrates for contemporary listeners one of the song’s original purposes: to serve as a warning about carelessly losing (or giving away) one’s sexual chastity or fidelity.
Did you follow that? If so, good work – I can barely follow it myself. No question about it: Led Zeppelin’s version of the song has a complicated, fascinating lineage. Let’s start by taking a look at how Robert Plant himself describes it:
“Gallows Pole,” Led Zeppelin, with narrative intro by Plant
Lead Belly’s “Gallis Pole” was one of the first if not the first recordings of the song, made in the 1930s, and you can see right away in his fingerpicking what might have inspired Led Zeppelin’s tribute:
“Gallis Pole,” Lead Belly
But this isn’t quite the same song. Although Lead Belly changed the lyrics to the song often, adding narrative introductions and commentary, his versions contained neither an overt sexual bribe nor an overt act of murder. Whether the condemned man hangs at all remains ambiguous.
The same is true in in Fred Gerlach’s 1962 version of the song, which is often also credited as inspiring Plant and Page (and, again, one can see from the music why):
“The Gallows Pole,” Fred Gerlach
And in fact, in the end, most American versions of the “Maid Freed from the Gallows” emphasize the “freed” part or, at worst, remain ambiguous. From John Jacob Niles to Odetta to Jean Ritchie to The Kingston Trio to Peter Paul & Mary, and so on (and on and on) all the way up to the cover by Neil Young and Crazy Horse on their 2012 album Americana – these are all great, important songs. But they aren’t quitemurder ballads:
“The Hangman,” John Jacob Niles, first recorded in 1956
“The Gallows Pole,” Odetta from At the Gate of the Horn, 1957
“Hangman,” Jean Ritchie from British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, 1960
“Hangman,” The Kingston Trio from Make Way, 1961
(sorry, no Spotify version)
“Hangman,” Peter, Paul & Mary from See What Tomorrow Brings,1965)
In none of these songs does a maid offer herself up to the hangman to secure the freedom of the condemned man, only to watch him hang anyway. So wherefore the sexual bribe leading to murder, Led Zeppelin?
Enter the acclaimed Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, the Hungarian folk ballad “Feher Anna” and – as if the stage were not already crowded enough! – enter also Judy Collins and Bob Dylan. “Fehrer Anna” is a very, very old folk song about a young woman whose brother has been condemned to death for stealing a horse. Desperate to free him, she sleeps with the sentencing judge, only to find out in the morning that the judge has gone ahead and carried out the death sentence. In retaliation, she hurls curses at him, damning him to a fate worse than death. In 1924, Bartók – who also became a renowned collector and scholar of folk songs — included the ballad in his collection entitled Hungarian Folk Songs, translated to English and published in the United States in 1931.
(Bartók fled Hungary during World War II, settling in New York City, where he continued his work on Eastern European folks songs at Columbia University; he died a few short years later in 1945. In 2010, an archive of Bartók’s work – which helped define the field of enthnomusicology – was made available online by the The Institute for Musicology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. You can find it here. For a version of “Feher Anna” based on the traditional composition by the contemporary Hungarian musician Levente Szörényi, click here.)
In subsequent popular English versions and recordings, the name “Feher Anna” is translated as “Anathea” although the name of her brother, Lazlo, remains intact:
Lazlo Feher stole a stallion,
Stole him from the misty mountain
And they chased him and they caught him,
And in iron chains they bound him.
Word was brought to Anathea
That her brother was in prison.
“Bring me gold and six fine horses,
I will buy my brothers freedom.”
“Judge, oh, judge, please spare my brother,
I will give you gold and silver.”
“I don’t want your gold and silver,
All I want are your sweet favours.”
These are the lyrics that Judy Collins used when, in 1963, she began singing “Anathea” during her live performances. She recorded the song on her third album that same year. Also later that same year, during the recording sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin’, Bob Dylan recorded a version of the song under the title “Seven Curses,” changing up the lyrics a bit.
Here is an older Judy Collins singing the popular song:
“Anathea,” Judy Collins
And Bob Dylan’s version, from the remastered Bootleg album:
“Seven Curses, Bob Dylan
In the notes to the Bootleg Series, John Bauldie writes that, at its core, “Seven Curses” is a song that is
…as old as the hills – the tale used by Shakespeare for Measure for Measure is an obvious variant – and it’s been told in folk song many times down the years, under such titles as “The Prickley Bush,” the Briery Bush,” and the “Prickle Holly Bush.” Perhaps the earliest version is the Child Ballad number 95, ‘the Maid Freed from the Gallows,” but it seems likely that Dylan’s direct source was a song called “Anathea,” often performed by Judy Collins, whom Dylan knew well at the time.
Of course, Collins’s own likely direct source was an earlier, non-English murder ballad that served as a precursor to “Maid Freed From the Gallows” — a song brought to America not by the “pilgrim fathers” as Plant describes it in the video above, but by a famous Hungarian composer fleeing the ravages of war-torn Europe in the 1940s.
Although I can’t find any specific acknowledgment by Jimmy Page or Robert Plant that “Anathea” or “Seven Curses” influenced their version of “Gallows Pole,” it too seems more than likely. (If you have found such acknowledgment, send it our way.) Like the other songs on Led Zeppelin III, “Gallows Pole” was composed following Led Zeppelin’s major 1970 tour of North America, and is well known for shifting away from the hard rock and metal music that made up the tour towards more acoustic and folk arrangements. At any rate, it’s obvious that their version of “Gallows Pole” reunites the two divergent traditional folk ballads.
Led Zeppelin’s song also shows us how — over time and in the multiple versions of this old tale — the maiden functions as stand-in for the golden ball itself, and vice versa. That is, the maiden herself often becomes the fair and desired object that is offered up in a hopeful, desperate bid for freedom – for the “happily ever after.”
“Frog Prince” by Arthur Rackham
And, as many have discussed, this suggests that in the original tales, too, what the maiden has lost – what puts her at risk of total ruin, forsaken by all — is not her golden ball, but rather her chastity and thus her honor and her value. This is the case even in the version with the fairy tale ending, “The Frog Prince” (discussed in the last post). This is also, after all, a story about a woman who must kiss a repulsive toad in order to regain what has been lost and to secure a future. All these tales teach a lesson about the value of a woman’s sexual chastity — and the serious risk taken when it is carelessly lost, too freely given away, used as a bargaining chip, or traded like gold.
The Frog Prince, Michal Karcz
In a future post, Ken plans to address Dylan’s “Seven Curses” on its own merits and in more depth — and will perhaps shed some light on why such a tale became so important to the American folk and blues tradition (no pressure Ken!). In the meantime, if you have thoughts about that or any other aspect of this complicated song, let us know.