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.[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 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, 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."[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]


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 László is imprisoned for stealing horses. Anna sleeps with Judge Horváth 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.[6]

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).[7]

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.[8] 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).[8] Child describes additional examples from the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Russia, and Slovenia, several of which feature a man being ransomed by a woman.[8]

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[9] (translated into English in 1729).

"Gallows Pole" and the era of recorded music

Lead Belly version

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".[10]

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 The Times They Are A-Changin' 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,Cara Dillon, Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, June Tabor, Peter Bellamy and Spiers & Boden.[11]

Led Zeppelin version

"Gallows Pole"
Advance copy 5:11 stereo single
Song by Led Zeppelin
from the album Led Zeppelin III
Released5 October 1970 (1970-10-05)
StudioHeadley Grange, England
Songwriter(s)Traditional, arr. 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.[14]


Page adapted the song from a version by American Fred Gerlach,[14][15] included on his 1962 album Twelve-String Guitar for Folkways Records.[16] On Led Zeppelin III the track was credited "Traditional: Arranged by Page and Plant". Their version followed Gerlach's very closely for the first two verses (arrival of friends, arrival of the protagonist's brother), but the lyrics for the second half of the song, detailing the arrival of his sister and her failed attempt to save him, are written by Plant, albeit bearing some similarities to other versions.


"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.[14][15]

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."[17] It is also one of Page's favourite songs on Led Zeppelin III.[15]

Led Zeppelin performed the song a few times live during Led Zeppelin concerts in 1971.[14] Plant sometimes also included the lyrics in live performances of the Led Zeppelin song "Trampled Under Foot" in 1975.


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."[18] Lenz further wrote that Jones joins the fun as well, "as he adds some mandolin flourish to the mix."[18]


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.[19] 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"[20]
  • "The Briery Bush"[21]
  • "Hangman"
  • "Hangman, Slacken"[2]
  • "Hangman, Slack on the Line"[22]
  • "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"[2]
  • "Old Rabbit, the Voodoo"
  • "The Golden Ball"
  • "Mama, Did You Bring Any Silver?"
  • "The Sycamore Tree"[23]

See also


  1. Child, Francis James. "The Maid Freed from the Gallows". English and Scottish Popular Ballads.
  2. "Hangman, Slacken (The Maid Freed From the Gallows; Hold Your Hands, Old Man)". Wolf Folklore Collection. Archived from the original on 2016-09-21. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  3. Jacobs, Joseph, ed. "The Golden Ball" More English Fairy Tales. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894.
  4. 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
  5. Lyrics to "Seven Curses" The Official Bob Dylan website
  6. Roberto Leydi. I canti popolari italiani, Mondadori, Milano, 1973
  7. Anders Larsen, Mærrasámid birra/Om sjøsamene, pages 53 and 64, Tromsø University Museum, Tromsø 1950.
  8. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 346-50, Dover Publications, New York 1965.
  9. "Bluebeard: Folktales of types 312 and 312A". 2014-11-14. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  10. Richard Mercer Dorson, American Folklore (1959) p. 196.
  11. Zierke, Reinhard. "The Streets of Derry / Derry Gaol / Hail a Brighter Day". Mainly Norfolk. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
  12. Christman, Ed (January 9, 2019). "Led Zeppelin At 50: Every Zep Song, Ranked By Revenue Generated". Billboard. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  13. Brown, Jimmy (January 9, 2015). "The 50 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs". Guitar World. Retrieved March 15, 2019.
  14. Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  15. "Jimmy Page discusses making Led Zeppelin III". Retrieved 2012-08-09.
  16. "Twelve-String Guitar: Folk Songs and Blues Sung and Played by Fred Gerlach | Smithsonian Folkways". 2013-03-20. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  17. Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  18. Lenz, Kristofer (6 June 2014). "Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III [Reissue]". CoS. Retrieved 13 August 2017.
  19. "Folk Music Index – M to Maid N".
  20. "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.
  21. "The Briery Bush". Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  22. The Ballad of America, John Anthony Scott pages 207–208
  23. The Ballad of America, John Anthony Scott pages.14–15

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.
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