Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was twice convicted: once for trying to kill a man, and once for following through with it. After the first, he wrote a song of appeal to the governor of Texas, Pat Neff. Neff, incidentally, had vowed never to grant a pardon as governor. He did though, in 1925, but he might not have bothered. Less than 5 years later, Ledbetter committed his second crime. And, somewhat unbelievably, received another pardon, this one from Governor O.K. Allen. Here he is with Gallis Pole from 1939.
In the song, a condemned woman pleads for her life, asking family and friends for bribes in order to escape hanging. There are many variations on the same theme…in some she escapes, and in some, the money never comes.
The tune got Led Zeppelin in a bit of hot water, as claims were made that the supergroup plagiarized Ledbetter on their version. While he is listed as the songwriter on some of his releases, it’s more accurately listed on others as “Traditional”. On Led Zeppelin III, this song is credited as “Traditional, arr. Page/Plant”. Page himself acknowledged both Leadbelly and Fred Gerlach as sources of inspiration. What do you think? Get the Led out right here.