edited from Stephen Winick (Folklife Center News, vol. 33, #1-2):
The first song on side 2 of “Led Zeppelin III”, “Gallows Pole,” began with acoustic twelve-string guitar, banjo, and mandolin, instrumentation the band had never used before in such a stark, acoustic manner. The song did eventually employ electric guitar, bass, and drums, and approximate Led Zeppelin’s hard-driving approach to other material, but the arrangement built up to that gradually during the course of the song.
The lyrics, meanwhile, told a strange story in which the narrator, apparently a man about to be hanged, implores a hangman to “hold it a little while” until various family members arrive to save him. The narrator’s brother arrives with gold and silver to pay off the hangman.
Few of Led Zeppelin’s fans would recognize this song as a version of the ancient ballad “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” which is number 95 in the classic collection published in the late nineteenth century by Francis James Child. Indeed, Led Zeppelin’s plot is quite different from most versions of this ballad. In most, each family member fails to arrive with gold or silver, until the narrator’s sweetheart arrives to save the day. So where did they find this unusual song, and how did they adapt it?
According to Page, Led Zeppelin started with the Gerlach version. Robert Plant rewrote the verses to include the sister’s seduction of the hangman, the hangman’s betrayal, and the death of the narrator. Page and the other band members added the folk-rock arrangement. Because Page and John Paul Jones each overdubbed several instruments into the arrangement, Page alone playing six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, and banjo, the band was unable to reproduce the arrangement live. They therefore played the song only a few times in concert, but it has lived on as a classic album track.