The Maid Freed from the Gallows

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"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.[1] 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.


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.[1] Although the traditional versions do not resolve the fate of the condemned one way or the other,[citation needed] 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.[2][3] 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."[4]

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.[3]

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[5][6] or indicate that she is being hanged for fornication.[citation needed]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[citation needed]


The song may have originated in continental Europe. Some 50 versions have been reported in Finland,[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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).[12]

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.[13] 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).[13] Child describes additional examples from the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Russia, and Slovenia, several of which feature a man being ransomed by a woman.[13]

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[14] (translated into English in 1729).

"Gallows Pole" and the era of recorded music

Lead Belly version

In the Shadow of the Gallows Pole, a Lead Belly album featuring the song as "The Gallis Pole".

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".[15]

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.[16]

Led Zeppelin version

"Gallows Pole"
Advance copy 5:11 stereo 7-inch 33⅓ rpm
Song by Led Zeppelin
from the album Led Zeppelin III
Released 5 October 1970 (1970-10-05)
Recorded Headley Grange, England, 1970
Genre Folk rock, blues rock
Length 4:58
Label Atlantic
Songwriter(s) Traditional, arranged by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Producer(s) Jimmy Page

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.[17] Page adapted the song from a version by American Fred Gerlach,[17][18] included on his 1962 album Twelve-String Guitar for Folkways Records.[19] 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.[17][18]

Page has stated that, similar to the song "Battle of Evermore" that was included on their fourth album, the song emerged spontaneously when he started experimenting with Jones' banjo, 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."[20] It is also one of Page's favourite songs on Led Zeppelin III.[18]

Led Zeppelin would perform the song a few times live during Led Zeppelin concerts in 1971.[17] 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."


In a retrospective review of Led Zeppelin III (Deluxe Edition), Kristofer Lenz of Consequence of Sound gave "Gallows Pole" a positive review, writing the track is "an excellent representation of Page’s acoustic prowess, as his simple guitar line is soon joined by 12-string and banjo."[21] Lenz further wrote that Jones joins the fun as well, "as he adds some mandolin flourish to the mix."[21]


Other versions

"Gallows Pole" single released by Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

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.

American folk singer John Jacob Niles recorded a version under the title "The Hangman" in 1940; the song was featured in the 2007 Harmony Korine film Mister Lonely.

A few lines of the song are sung by a woman strumming a guitar in a 1949 John Wayne movie, The Fighting Kentuckian. The song is chronologically appropriate to the film, which is set in 1818.

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.

German folk metal band In Extremo has a version of this song called "Der Galgen".

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.

Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young has a version named "Gallows Pole" on his 2012 album Americana recorded with Crazy Horse.

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.[22]

In literature

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.[citation needed]

In television

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.[23]


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 score names.[24] 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"[25]
  • "The Briery Bush"[26]
  • "Hangman"
  • "Hangman, Slacken"[4]
  • "Hangman, Slack on the Line"[27]
  • "Slack Your Rope"
  • "Ropeman"
  • "Ropeman's Ballad"
  • "Gallows"
  • "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"[4]
  • "Old Rabbit, the Voodoo"
  • "The Golden Ball"
  • "Mama, Did You Bring Any Silver?"
  • "The Sycamore Tree"[28]

See also

  • 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.[29]
  • 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").


  1. ^ a b Child, Francis James. "The Maid Freed from the Gallows". English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 
  2. ^ "Steeleye Span - Time". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  3. ^ a b "The Prickilie Bush". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  4. ^ a b c "Hangman, Slacken (The Maid Freed From the Gallows; Hold Your Hands, Old Man)". Wolf Folklore Collection. Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-02-27. Retrieved 2006-08-03. 
  6. ^ "More English Fairy Tales: The Golden Ball". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  7. ^ Jacobs, Joseph, ed. "The Golden Ball" More English Fairy Tales. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894.
  8. ^ Tristram P. Coffin, "The Golden Ball and the Hangman's Tree" p 23-4 D. K. Wilgus, Folklore International: essay in traditional literature, belief and custom in honor of Wayland Debs Hand, Folklore Associates, Inc. Hatboro PA 1967
  9. ^ "A Peck Of Dirt - Mark Automaton". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2006-08-03. 
  11. ^ Roberto Leydi. I canti popolari italiani, Mondadori, Milano, 1973
  12. ^ Anders Larsen, Mærrasámid birra/Om sjøsamene, pages 53 and 64, Tromsø University Museum, Tromsø 1950.
  13. ^ a b c Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 346-50, Dover Publications, New York 1965.
  14. ^ "Bluebeard: Folktales of types 312 and 312A". 2014-11-14. Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  15. ^ Richard Mercer Dorson, American Folklore (1959) p. 196.
  16. ^ Zierke, Reinhard. "The Streets of Derry / Derry Gaol / Hail a Brighter Day". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 April 2015. 
  17. ^ a b c d Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  18. ^ a b c "Jimmy Page discusses making Led Zeppelin III". Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  19. ^ "Twelve-String Guitar: Folk Songs and Blues Sung and Played by Fred Gerlach | Smithsonian Folkways". 2013-03-20. Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  20. ^ Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  21. ^ a b Lenz, Kristofer (6 June 2014). "Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III [Reissue]". CoS. Retrieved 13 August 2017. 
  22. ^ "Stephen Molyneux - Called to Leave (Cassette, Album)". 2013-06-03. Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  23. ^ "Bloodline Music - S1E2: "Part 2"". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  24. ^ "Folk Music Index - M to Maid N". 
  25. ^ "The Maid Freed from the Gallows / The Prickly Bush / The Prickle-Holly Bush / Prickle-Eye Bush / The Golden Ball (Roud 144; Child 95; G/D 2:248)". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  26. ^ "The Briery Bush". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 
  27. ^ The Ballad of America, John Anthony Scott pages 207-208
  28. ^ The Ballad of America, John Anthony Scott pages.14-15
  29. ^ "The Hangman - The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection - Missouri State University". Retrieved 2016-07-26. 

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Eleanor Long, Child 95 "The maid freed from the gallows": a geographical-historical study. 1968.
  • Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, by Chris Welch, ISBN 1-56025-818-7.
  • The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, by Dave Lewis, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.

External links

Lyrics available at Wikisource: