I heard this today and was suddenly intrigued by it as a piece of history. As Robert Plant explains in this live version, it is an old English folk song that went to the States and became part of Leadbelly’s repertoire.
The original recording has a banjo weaving through it which makes me wonder how many other pop songs have this instrument so many decades ago. I wonder if this is the first.
The simple repetition of phrases suggests the song is incredibly old, as does the subject matter, of life and death, and injustice. the lack of any religious sense seems to suggest it originated during the Civil War.
The story is about a man trying to escape being hanged, pleading with the hangman to delay until help arrives.
The story is incredibly evil as apparently the help does arrive, the hangman takes the money and takes advantage of the man’s sister, but still hangs him.
I have been thinking about the above comments, and much of it troubles me.
Plant claims the song went to the states on the Mayflower.
Hmmm they were very devout folks and I don’t think this would be part of their repertoire.
Also the incident described makes no sense. Hanging was either inside a prison – when the victim’s family could not get to them, or in public, in which case there should be more people involved.
Hangmen were highly skilled but socially isolated people, but they did not have the power to decide who should or should not be hanged, so the subject may have been a judge, a sherriff or some other legal person, so I’m afraid the story seems to be almost pure fiction.
I still love it, but I don’t believe it. Sorry Robert. You stick to singing and I promise I won’t subject the world to my caterwauling.