Welcome to "Behind the Lyrics" with Elise Chandler. Each week, I find a song that I feel is understated both musically and lyrically, and I analyze it through several critical lenses.
This week, we are looking at Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole". I love this song because of the musicality behind it, but also, the narrative storytelling. The whole time it is leading you to the climax of the story, and yet, it still shocks you by the end.
As the song progresses, we learn about the narrator's certain predicament. He is to be hanged for reasons unknown, but those close to the narrator are doing everything in their power to rescue him from this cruel fate.
In the beginning, the music is calm and bluesy. There is no hurry yet for help to arrive, but he sees his friends approaching and calls to the hangman: "Hangman, hangman hold it a little while." Unfortunately, the friends have failed to find anything to bribe the hangman because they are "too damn poor". All throughout this sad exchange, the music has begun to pick up in pace to reflect the narrator's loss of time and the increase in stress.
In the next stanza, the narrator is now boldly, loudly begging the hangman to "hold it awhile" for now he sees his brother riding to assist him. To add to the stressful feelings of the narrator, a mandolin joins in the music as it continues to grow in pace. This makes listeners unknowingly lean in to hear the next piece to this storyline. The brother has brought plenty of money, but the hangman is still not happy...leading to the next stanza.
In the next stanza, we learn of the narrator's sister (all while the music is increasing in speed and complexity). What does the narrator's sister bring to bribe the hangman? The narrator begs of his sister:
"Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand
Take him to some shady bower
Save me from the wrath of this man
Please take him"
He asks his own sister to risk her reputation for him. To sleep with a man she does not even know all to save him. Unfortunately, the sister does what he asks, leading to our final stanza and the climax of the story.
In the final stanza, when the narrator asks if he is free to ride away and be free. The hangman instead taunts the narrator by saying:
"Oh, yes, you got a fine sister
She warmed my blood from cold
She brought my blood to boiling hot
To keep you from the gallows pole, pole, pole, pole, yeah
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, yeah
But now I laugh and pull so hard"
And the song ends with a chilling, repeating, deadpan laughter of the hangman in the fast-paced ending.
Many listeners end this song with an extreme dislike for the hangman, and I agree. After all the sacrifices those near the narrator made, he simply used them and still killed the narrator. However, I ask us to look at this a bit deeper.
First, the hangman never promises anywhere in the song that if he is bribed enough he will let the man go. This may simply be the final fantasies born of a desperate man. The narrator is the one who led those near him to believe that only through their sacrifices he could be safe.
Additionally, the narrator seems to have no qualms about asking extreme favors from any of those close to him (again not certain it will even work). He begs and pleads for his friends to donate money when they quite honestly remind him they have none. He whines and questions his brother, and his brother delivers, but at what cost to him? Finally, he tells his sister to give up her chastity to protect him from the gallows pole, and she complies knowing well that in the time period the "gallows pole" was used, this could have ended her respectability and options in life.
He does all of this only to find none of these bribes work. So, is the hangman really that evil of a guy, or is he the final true act of justice turning the tables on a bad man? It is unfortunate that innocents (or who we believe to be innocents) have been swindled in this act of justice, but what is a better ending for a man who uses others than to be used and still not succeed?
Until next time.