Song 18 – The Gallis Pole

SONG: The Gallis Pole

ARTIST: Lead Belly

YEAR: 1939

Listen to it here: 


Gallis Pole aka Gallows Pole was originally a centuries-old folk song of unknown origin titled The Maid Freed from the Gallows.  The song may have originated in continental Europe, more specifically Finland, Sweden, Lithuania and Hungary, with over 50 noted versions in Finland alone.  Despite the varied origins, the message of the song remains the same – someone has been condemned to hang for an often unspecified crime and begs the executioner for mercy, also addresses the people who have arrived to watch them hang or bribe the hangman.  It is unknown if the pleas/bribes are successful.

The song was popularized in the modern world by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, and arguably most famously by Led Zeppelin.


Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter was born January 23, 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana, although the exact date and location of his birth is disputed.  When he was a teenager the family moved to texas where Ledbetter received his first musical instrument, an accordion.  By the early 1900s he had already developed his own sound, influenced by the mix of music heard around Shreveport saloons, brothels and dance halls.  By 1915 Ledbetter was incarcerated for the first of many times for carrying a pistol.  He was sentenced to a chain gang, escaped, only to be back in prison in 1918 for murdering a relative.  He was attacked in prison and has his neck slashed, leaving him with an ugly scar.  He was released and pardoned in 1925 after writing a song to Governor Pat Morris Neff begging for his freedom after serving 7 years, but was back in prison again in 1930 for attempted homicide.  

In 1934 Lead Belly started participating in group sings and collecting traditional songs to record and became known as ‘the singing convict’.  He started touring, performing and recording to fame, but no fortune.  1939 saw him back in prison and upon his release in 1941 he became a mainstay in the New York folk scene, befriending greats such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  He began touring the west coast of the United States, had his own radio show and started touring Europe until he fell ill and was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  He died December 6, 1949 at age 61. 


Jimmy Page has said that their (Led Zeppelin) version of the song started spontaneously while he was fiddling around with John Paul Jones’ banjo.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was a huge Lead Belly fan and listed him as one of the musicians tht influenced Nirvana’s sound.


TIME TO GET THE LED OUT!  Well, not quite.  You can definitely hear where Robert Plant and Jimmy Page got their inspiration for their version of this song.  I haven’t really listened to Lead Belly and I didn’t realize how influential he was, so this song was a treat!  Lead Belly had a great voice, and it’s cool to start to hear where a lot of Folk and Americana started to emerge.  I love the sound of a 12-string guitar, and that glorious full sound is on display here.  His high energy strumming and delivery doesn’t need a rhythm section, his delivery is enough!


This is the second reverse-cover we’ve listened to! Meaning that I know a cover of this song much much better than this version. Led Zeppelin does a version of this too that I really like. Anyway, I digress. Leadbelly is another artist I’ve definitely heard of but never really listened to. I really like this upbeat, high-energy version of this song! I’m not as versed in guitar terms as my sister is, so I’m going to say I really like the jangly sound of the guitar in this one. It goes so well with Leadbelly’s voice. As an aside, I’m looking forward to the point in history where people put some forethought into how they end songs! 

Average mark out of 10:

Holly: 8/10

Kelly: 8/10

*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!

Other notable versions of this song (include youtube links when possible)


Listen with us!

Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

Link to the Best of the Best 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

Published by Kelly

What I like: Music, travel, coffee, beer, makeup and photography! My gear: Canon EOS 60D and 18-200mm lens. Where call home: Vancouver, BC, Canada Photography Experience: Very amateurish.

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