This week's song goes under many names: the oldest is "The Maid Freed From The Gallows," though it has also been known as "The Gallows Tree" and "Gallows Pole" and simply as "Hangman, Hangman." It is a song with a rich and varied history and all the things that I love about real folk songs - a good tune and story, origins lost in the mists of time, major variations in tune, tone, and tenor, and that tantalizing single motif that unites all the versions and indicates a common source. Someone is about to be hanged and his/her family proves indifferent to the fact. Things are looking bad for our prisoner until his/her beloved (usually the fiance/fiancee) shows up with enough gold to bribe the hangman and save the day. Significantly - and unlike other folk songs like, say, the family of songs that eventually morph into "The Gypsy Rover" that have radically differing endings - our prisoner always escapes the noose due to the good offices of the beloved.
The versions of the song that we know come from England, where it was known in its oldest forms as "The Briarly Bush" or "The Prickly Bush," but the actual origins of the song are from the continent. Virtually every country in Northern Europe (and many in the south) have some variant of it, and the great folk scholar Francis James Child (1825-1896), the American who did landmark work in tracing both the origins and permutations of about three hundred ballads from the British Isles, believes the song to be German or Hungarian originally.
In UK and European versions, the prisoner is almost always a maid, often one kidnapped and held for ransom by pirates; in America's southern Appalachians and in the Texas-Louisiana area where the song is also known, the condemned is usually a man. Regardless, the motif of purchasing one's freedom from the gallows (or a hostage situation) does in fact have its roots in history. Though then as now capital punishment was a deterrent, an act of vengeance, and a kind of terrorism inflicted by the ruling class on the lower classes to keep them in line - it differs from the procedure-laden, appeals-rich and legally intricate method of today. In 17th century England and before, for example, those accused of capital crimes were not permitted a solicitor and had to mount their own defense. And if reprieve could not have been purchased all that frequently at the point of execution - some gold given to the right jurist prior to then could work wonders. And there were reported cases (in Scotland, not surprisingly) of executions forestalled by the payment of a ransom.
Our first version of the song is fittingly a pub performance from the UK, by an 84 year old woman simply known as Bella.:
Bella is apparently from central Europe but lived most of her nine decades in the north of England. She sings in the authentic a capella style that most ballads were performed in traditionally. I'm intrigued by how the younger-skewing audience (fueled by ale, no doubt) finds the parents' refusal to help amusing. Whatever dark humor permeates a lot of folk songs - there isn't much here in this one. Rather, it is an implicit commentary on how the bonds of romantic love transcend those of birth family - and the laughter shows what happens when folks get cut off from their folk roots. No wonder American Idol and its ilk are popular.
The two classic American folk performances of the song probably belong to Leadbelly, who claimed to have learned it in prison (he spent a lot of years there for various offenses including manslaughter) and Odetta. Leadbelly throws in a really bluesy tinge to the melody (which I bet influenced the Kingston Trio's Nick Reynolds) and in a comment on YouTube absolutely shreds the twelve string guitar here - if you ever wondered why people regard ol' Huddie Ledbetter with reverence, listen to him play here:
Odetta on the other hand approaches the song with the almost operatic seriousness that characterized most folk singing before the commercial/pop folk era began big time in 1958:
The commercial popularizing groups also took a couple of good whacks at the piece. The Kingston Trio included it - fittingly, I'd say - on their early 1961 so-called "dark" album Make Way, so called because of the generally quiet tone of most of the song selections (and the dark dust jacket, the illustration in the video):
The first generation of the Trio here is doing what it often did and is seldom credited for doing - using a fairly close reading of the original song with some interesting wrinkles. Note how close this version is lyrically to Bella's above and the aforementioned Leadbelly-esque bluesy tone of the vocals. I'm also wondering idly here if I am hearing Dave Guard on his fairly new Gibson twelve string and Bob Shane on plectrum banjo....
Peter, Paul and Mary also do a fine job with a melody a bit more reminiscent of the oldest British version that can be heard here - "The Briery Bush". From a 1965 BBC television show:
Led Zeppelin riffed off Leadbelly's version in 1970, as Robert Plant explains in his intro to this 1998 live performance with Jimmy Page:
There's a bit of Steppenwolf's cover of Hoyt Axton's "The Pusher" in the intro too, I think.
Two final versions - first, another opera-serious almost a capella rendition from Kentucky's master dulcimerist and folkorist, John Jacob Niles:
And I'm sure you've been waiting for this one - the Smothers Brothers unforgettable - ah, abbreviated version:
Roots and branches, roots and branches....the very nature of real folk music.