Thursday, November 11, 2010

Now I Laugh And Pull So Hard ...

Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, sometimes became frustrated when Led Zeppelin were dismissed or praised as a heavy metal group, claiming that a full third of Zeppelin's group output was acoustic. I've never stopped to count or categorize each song, but Plant's accounting sounds about right. In fact, Led Zeppelin's third album, cleverly titled Led Zeppelin III, is largely acoustic and distinctly folksy in an eccentric British way.

The album starts off with "Immigrant Song" — two minutes and twenty-six seconds of pretty unrelenting Sturm und Drang1 throb-rock — thus seeming to promise Zeppelin fans more of what they had loved on the first two albums, both of which were largely (though not entirely) hard rock; but LZIII quickly switches tone with the very next song, "Friends", remarkable both for Page's weirdly buzzy drop-C tuned acoustic guitar (he uses the same tuning on "Bron-Yr-Aur", recorded during the same session) and its lack of any electric guitar. Hedging their bets, Zeppelin released "Immigrant Song" as their single from the album2, even though it is, arguably, the song least representative of the sound of the album as a whole.
"Gallows Pole" is without a doubt one of the standout tracks on LZIII; it is also my personal favorite on that album, which is odd for a number of reasons. The song is not a Led Zeppelin original — being, in fact, based on a centuries-old ballad (Renaissance-era at least; possibly Mediaeval) that probably had even older Scandinavian roots. I tend to like Zeppelin's original and harder rocking songs — "Trampled Underfoot" being, for me, the exemplar of a quintessential Led Zeppelin song — and "Gallows Pole" is not only far from a traditional hard rocker, it's pretty much fully acoustic3.

"Gallows Pole" features Jimmy Page playing acoustic six- and 12-string guitars as well as banjo; and John Paul Jones adds mandolin and bass. There's a fiddle in there, as well, which comes in last of all the stringed instruments, and is played in that unmistakable screechy, country manner that fairly requires it be called a "fiddle" instead of a "violin"; the screech nicely matches Robert Plant's own high-pitched vocal, something that is especially noticeable at roughly the 4:39 mark of the song, during the prolonged fade out, when the fiddle plays a particularly discordant chord while Plant wails "Ooooooooo, yeah!" and it is basically impossible to tell where the fiddle leaves off and Plant's caterwauling begins. Both Plant and the fiddle sound egregiously off-key to me here, but it somehow works.

The song builds tension by bringing the various instruments in one-by-one; the tension is further underscored by the song's tempo, which gradually speeds up as the song progresses — understandably, since the narrator is getting closer and closer to the moment of his own execution and is still hoping for some sort of last second reprieve. The main source of tension in the song, though, is its basic and simple plot: A condemned man, about to be hanged, pleads with his executioner to "hold it a little while" so that his friends and family can have a chance to arrive, perhaps with bribes sufficient to convince the hangman to set the condemned man free.

"Gallows Pole" is a version of the traditional "Maid Freed From The Gallows" ballad, but the Led Zeppelin version introduces two interesting variations: The condemned, in "Gallows Pole", is a man, not a woman — which we know only because the narrator's own brother refers to him as "Brother" ("Brother, I brought you some silver" etc.); and in the Led Zeppelin version of the ballad, he is not set free.

The verses of the song show little deviation from the quickly established pattern: The condemned asks the hangman to wait because he sees his friends/brother/sister coming; he then asks his friends/brother/sister what each has brought to try to bargain for his life.

His friends fail him:

I couldn't get no silver, I couldn't get no gold,
You know that we're too damn poor to keep you from the Gallows Pole.

But his brother comes through:

Brother, I brought you some silver,
I brought a little gold, I brought a little of everything
To keep you from the Gallows Pole.

The gold and silver are not enough, however, to propitiate the hangman. Thus, when the condemned's sister arrives, he pleads with her:

Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand,
Take him to some shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man

The sister complies with this request; the hangman, as he acknowledges in the last verse, gladly receives every bribe proffered him. The tempo of the song reaches a manic pace as the condemned pleads:

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile,
Tell me that I'm free to ride,
Ride for many mile, mile, mile.

To which the hangman5 answers:

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold,
Brought my blood to boiling hot To keep you from the Gallows Pole,
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.

This reversal is what makes the song so unique and effective. "Gallows Pole" is pulled from a traditional source in which the condemned invariably escapes the death that awaits him/her. It is more than a little shocking to see the twist (in both senses) that comes at the end of the Led Zeppelin version.

This reversal is also fitting — not in the sense that the condemned deserves to die, but in the sense that the song underscores the essential arbitrariness of what we, even to this day, call "justice". We don't know what the condemned man has been convicted of (if anything); we don't know why his sentence is so harsh; we accept the condemned man's belief that he can buy his way out of his fate with gold, silver and sexual favors, because the equivalent of this happens today, all of the time ... and we are shocked to learn that, despite it all, cruel injustice in its vilest and most inhuman form prevails.

It is also fitting that the song's long fadeout should consist of what is evidently the hangman's mocking of the dead body as it twists in the wind: Ah-ha-ha!
Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
Think I see my friends coming, Riding a many mile.
Friends, did you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends, To keep me from the Gallows Pole?
What did you bring me to keep me from the Gallows Pole?

I couldn't get no silver, I couldn't get no gold,
You know that we're too damn poor to keep you from the Gallows Pole.
Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I think I see my brother coming, riding a many mile.
Brother, did you get me some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my brother, to keep me from the Gallows Pole?

Brother, I brought you some silver,
I brought a little gold, I brought a little of everything
To keep you from the Gallows Pole.
Yes, I brought you to keep you from the Gallows Pole.

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile,
I think I see my sister coming, riding a many mile, mile, mile.
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, save me from the wrath of this man, man.

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile,
Tell me that I'm free to ride,
Ride for many mile, mile, mile.

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold,
Brought my blood to boiling hot To keep you from the Gallows Pole,
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

1 Far be it from me to suggest that anyone reading this post would need to look up the meaning of "Sturm und Drang", but if you should feel the need to, I highly recommend you do so at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary site, not because its definitions are so stellar — they're really just okay — but rather because it supplies you with a short list of words that "rhyme" with Sturm und Drang, among which are: billabong, scuppernong, Vietcong and Wollongong.

Not one of which rhymes with it as well as, say, firm young wang ... just off the top of my head.

Not to suggest there's a firm young wang on top of my head.

Also, full disclosure: Sturm und Drang doesn't really rhyme that well with "firm young wang" if you pronounce the former in anything even approximating the approved Teutonic way. But it's still a better rhyme than "Vietcong", for the love of Baby Jebus.

2 The B side of the "Immigrant Song" single, however, was "Hey Hey What Can I Do", another acoustic number that for some reason didn't make it onto the album and was considered a rarity because it was the only non-album track released by the band while they were still together. It's a pretty good song and got (and still gets) a lot of airplay, perhaps in part because of its relative rareness. The lyrics to the song are yet another example of Robert Plant's casual misogyny; the narrator lamenting that his woman "won't be true" and just "want[s] to ball all day". (Anyone even remotely familiar with the band's offstage antics should immediately spot the irony in Plant's lamenting anyone else's lack of fidelity.) From "Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)", on the band's second album (the album on which Plant first started making meaningful lyrical contributions) right up to the end of Led Zeppelin's career, you'll find Plant lyrics that are patently and gratuitously misogynistic. Led Zeppelin had its roots in blues music, and the that (d)evil woman done me wrong conceit is strong in the blues tradition, but Plant's visceral hatred of women seems to go above and beyond the call of the blues. His lyrics routinely portrays women as whores (e.g., "Hey fellas, have you heard the news? You know that Annie's back in town?/ It won't take long just watch and see how the fellas lay their money down" ("Heartbreaker"); "Come on, babe on the round about, ride on the merry-go-round,/We all know what your name is, so you better lay your money down" ("Living Loving Maid")) and at times he goes so far as to suggests that women are in some way not fully human ("I don't know but I been told/ Big-legged woman ain't go no soul" ("Black Dog")).

"Black Dog" owes more to a stereotypical military drill cadence than it does to the blues; it would also be a bit of a stretch to see a blues influence in "Hey Hey What Can I Do", yet Plant's ingrained fear and mistrust of women is nevertheless at the heart of these songs. And many others.

3 Allegedly, there's an electric guitar in there somewhere, but if it's there, it comes in so late and is buried so far down in the mix that I can't make it out, even when I listen to the song with headphones. I'm still not convinced it's there.

4 This verse is quite reminiscent of one of the major plot points of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure — one of Shakespeare's "problem plays", so called for good reason (which I won't go into here): Angelo, temporarily put in charge of the city of Venice, charges Claudio with fornication (on what is clearly a technicality since Claudio is, by any reasonable standard, married to the woman he has sex with) and intends to have Claudio executed. Claudio's sister, Isabella, a novitiate, intercedes with Angelo and Angelo — revealing himself to be the prototype of the current-day "family values" conservative Republican politician4a — makes it clear he'll set Claudio free if Isabella will fuck him. Isabella, though, refuses. When she tells the imprisoned Claudio of this offer, he, like the narrator of "Gallows Pole", pleads with her to consider it. But whereas the Sister in "Gallows Pole" agrees, Isabella refuses in a manner that is remarkably callous and cold-blooded, the dialogue for which is worth reproducing:

Yes, he [Angelo] would give't thee, from this rank offence,
So to offend him still. This night's the time
That I should do what I abhor to name,
Or else thou diest to-morrow.

Thou shalt not do't.

O, were it but my life,
I'ld throw it down for your deliverance
As frankly as a pin.

Thanks, dear Isabel.

Be ready, Claudio, for your death tomorrow.

Yes. Has he affections in him,
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose,
When he would force it? Sure, it is no sin,
Or of the deadly seven, it is the least.

Which is the least?

If it were damnable, he being so wise,
Why would he for the momentary trick
Be perdurably fined? O Isabel!

What says my brother?

Death is a fearful thing.

And shamed life a hateful.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Alas, alas!

Sweet sister, let me live:
What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

O you beast!
O faithless coward! O dishonest wretch!
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest, to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance!
Die, perish! Might but my bending down
Reprieve thee from thy fate, it should proceed:
I'll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,
No word to save thee.
 Yikes! The dude's about to be unjustly executed and his sister, not content with refusing to help, just lambastes the guy, even floating the rhetorical possibility that he might be a bastard ... "[f]or such a warped slip of wilderness/ Ne'er issued from his [their father's] blood". (Simultaneously and of necessity, implying that their mother was a whoo-wer, incidentally. Not content with implying it, Isabella pert-near comes right out and declares it: "Heaven shield my mother play'd my father fair!") Pretty harsh. This is one of the reasons they call M4M one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays. Because this is pretty problematic; and is made more so by the fact that the Duke, who put Angelo in charge, secretly witnesses all of this psychological torture and could put a stop to it at any time but chooses not to. But fear not, Dear Reader! It all ends well4b thanks to the bed trick, in which Angelo is tricked into fucking the wrong wench, Mariana, and she, lucky ducky, thereby loses a maidenhead but gains a sleazebag of a husband! See? Everybody wins! Angelo, instead of going to jail, gets saddled with a wife he clearly doesn't care for and so what are the chances that, six months after they're married, we'll be seeing him, shirtless, face blurred out, on the Fox Renaissance Reality Show, CONSTABLES, being arrested for being drunk on mead and beating his wife?

Roughly 100%, I'd guestimate.

4a Hahahahaahahaha! Just kidding! If Angelo were actually a "values" conservative, he'd've been trying to extort sex from Claudio's brother. Clearly Angelo is a hetero predator, and therefore more of a Democrat.

4b All's Well That Ends Well, it should be noted, is the other comedy in which Shakespeare employs the "bed trick". O, yeah, these are comedies. Although I think I've gotten as many laughs out of that truly craptacular "comedy" Two and a Half Men, i.e., exactly zero. So they're comedies, but also "problem plays" — for reasons that should be obvious by now.

5 The abrupt change in first person narrator — from the point of view of the condemned to the hangman — is another effective variation in this version of the tale. The hangman's callousness is chilling enough; but there is a distinct whiff of sulfurous evil when the hangman declare that he laughs as he ruthlessly murders the condemned man.


  1. Yesterday I asked Scott if we could pleeeaze go out to eat because you see I work from home and the walls felt like they were closing in on me. And he said sure. (not that I need permission, but I like to be agreeable :)) So we're sitting outside, drinking a beer, having a burger and he says, "Did you read Glaven's post today?"

    And I cracked up because I didn't know he read your blog unless I forwarded a link. And then I said, "I hate Led Zeppelin and I knew it'd be completely over my head." And he goes, "yeah, but it was a really good post. He talked about Shakespeare and really talked about the meaning of the lyrics."

    And I said: Did he say anyroad?
    Scott: No.
    Beth: Did he talk about Teh Bride?
    Scott: Nope, didn't talk about her either.
    Beth: Did he talk about his N@t$ack?
    Scott: Head shake no.

    And so I see there were 0 official blog comments on your post, but just so you know there were quite a few unofficial comments last night at The Treehouse.

  2. @Cavewoman Beth and her much, much younger and observationally gifted Manboy Spouse - I'm surprised when anyone reads one of my long posts, so thanks. And even though I didn't talk about my n*ts@ck in this post, I did mention a "firm young wang" that may or may not be on top of my head. [Full disclosure: It's not.]

    Beer, burgers and Led Zeppelin ... I'm sad for you, B'ogg, because you can enjoy only two of those.

  3. In reading your post this morning I found it necessary to consult my own personal Old-As-Dirt-Music Encyclopedia, aka my hubby. (I know Teh Bride has a similar edition.)

    When I asked him about Led Zeppelin III, he said "Oh, the one with the "Hangman song" where the guy pimps his sister" [laughs] "and gets strung up anyway." [more laughter]

    Seems one should not consult the OADM Encyclopedia before it has had some coffee. It can be a little cranky.

    Loved the M4M footnote. Doing a Shxpr critique (or whatever you literary types call it) in a footnote is the type of conciseness that us science-y types can understand.

  4. And is that a fine young wang on top of your head?

    You may want to have that checked out by a medical professional, or consider a career change to a gay porn star.

  5. Great - now I have to write a poem that rhymes Sturm und Drang, scuppernong, etc. because thars a challenge!

    I've always had a problem with Zep because the fans are way too rabid. Now that Plant's doing acoustic folk songs that show he can actually sing, the larynx-shredding of most of the early work really irritates me. My one song of theirs I really like is "Kashmir," and the version by cellist Maya Beiser (easily found on YouTube) is a hoot.

  6. Speaking of dictionaries... "Glaven" is Slovenian for "main, principal, head." It's pronounced Glava-en.

  7. Well, I DID read the whoe post. I admit it. But I am one of those annoying people who paid too much attention to Led Zeppelin II and IV. And I have nothing to add since I didn't realize their lyrics were so interpretable. Shit.

    Your Danish is really coming along, by the way. For some reason that made me picture your donut walking down the street. And then that made me think of... oh, never mind.

  8. The whoe post. Ha. I love it! I meant the WHOLE post.

  9. I can't believe I just read that whole thing. You suck me in, every single time. (no naughty comments...I AM your lil sis remember) How's teh dad?