Q: I recently heard David Bowie’s song, “Ashes to Ashes” on the radio and it made me wonder about his interest in the character Major Tom, to whom we were introduced in “Space Oddity.” Why was Bowie fascinated with Major Tom?
A: First off, it seems pretty clear that Major Tom is fictional and does not refer to any specific astronaut. The Major Tom character actually appears in three of Bowie’s songs. As you mentioned, Bowie first introduced him in 1969’s “Space Oddity,” which was obviously inspired both by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and by all the buildup to the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first human on the Moon on July 20, 1969. However, as imagined by Bowie, Major Tom decides to forego all the commercialism of Earth in order to spend eternity wandering among the stars, “floating in his tin can.” In 1980, Bowie reinterpreted Major Tom in “Ashes to Ashes.” In this song, Ground Control receives a radio message from the wayward astronaut in which he says, “I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too.” Many believe that this Major Tom is actually Bowie himself, singing about successfully overcoming his drug habit from the ’70s. Although not mentioned directly by name, Major Tom is referenced in the song, “Hallo Spaceboy” from Bowie’s 1995 album “Outside.” Bowie’s character has also inspired other artists, namely Elton John, whose song “Rocket Man” is believed to have been influenced by “Space Oddity,” and by Peter Schilling, a German musician whose 1983 song, “Major Tom (Coming Home),” was a worldwide hit.
Q: I know that Led Zeppelin was influenced by early American blues singers. Can you tell me the origin of their song, “Gallows Pole”?
A: To say that Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jon Bonham were influenced by the blues is highly understated.
They mined a number of earlier blues songs from a variety of artists for song lyrics as well as melodies. That’s not to say that they didn’t infuse the songs with their own interpretations, often taking the underlying original into new musical territories.
An example of this is the song you mentioned, “Gallows Pole,” from their 1970 album, “Led Zeppelin III.”
Originally, the song was an old English ballad that migrated across the Atlantic and was picked up by such bluesmen as Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly’s version, called “Gallis Pole,” was recorded in 1939.
It tells the tale of a man condemned to swing from the “gallis pole.” But, before he is executed, a succession of family members comes with gold and silver to pay the hangman and stay the execution and buy the condemned man’s freedom.
Lead Belly’s song ends without any clear indication as to the fate of the condemned man, but we’re left with the feeling that there is at least a chance that the man isn’t hanged.
Led Zep’s version, however, leaves nothing unresolved. In their version, the prisoner asks the hangman to wait because he sees his friends, brother and sister coming to help him. His friends tell him that they’re too poor to pay, but the brother does bring a little money. The condemned man asks his sister to take the hangman by the hand and lead him to “some shady bower.”
When the hangman returns, with a smile on his face, rather than letting the man go, he tells the condemned man that “I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole.”