Remembering the Old Songs:

Pretty Polly

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1997)

Last month we had a song about a little carpenter. This month, inflation being what it is, we're going to have a song about a big, murderous carpenter. Fortunately, he also gets his comeuppance.
This is, very possibly, the first bluegrass song I ever heard. Some time in the middle Sixties, my parents brought home a four record set called The Folk Box, which included a recording of this song by The Dillards. So I would have learned it when I was about six.

I was never really fond of Pretty Polly, though. Murder ballads are all very well, but pointless murder ballads? Not for me. (I never liked Banks of the Ohio much, either, and for the same reasons.)

It turns out, though, that Pretty Polly is not a pointless murder ballad. There's a plot, way back there in the dim and misty; it just never made its way across the Atlantic.

The earliest known version of the story (The Cruel Ship's Carpenter or The Gosport Tragedy; Laws P36) was printed around 1750. Since it was some thirty-five verses long, I won't burden you with quotations from it. But the plot was this.

Willie, the carpenter, has gotten Mary/Molly/Polly pregnant. He bids her to come to him to make plans for their wedding. She comes; he kills and buries her. So far, it looks like the American ballad (except that few American versions mention the pregnancy). But there is a second act.

Willie went to sea, but was not left in peace for long. The ship was not far from land when a girl with a child in her arms appeared on board. The lookout, who was half-drunk, ran to embrace her, and found it was a ghost. The captain seeks out the murderer, who goes mad and dies.

Later versions of the ballad were shorter and more pointed. In these, the ghost did not merely seek out the villain, but herself undertook to deal with him, carrying him away from the ship or even tearing him to pieces. Some of these versions made it to America, though I have yet to hear a recording of any of them.

From there it was but a hop, skip, and a long omission to the American form. There were some transformations along the way (e.g. the British versions use the standard four-line stanza, whereas many American versions use the three-line arrangement shown here). But the basic process was just one of losing bits and pieces along the way. The song also developed a variety of tunes; the one shown here is a rather unusual form of a common family, but there is also one in major, and another minor form with a four-line stanza. Most are pentatonic and easy to harmonize.

I thought about printing the Dillards version of the song, and also about printing the version that I know best (which, curiously, I cannot locate on record). But I finally decided on this very old-time version, recorded by Dock Boggs for Folkways. It is substantially fuller than the usual American versions, and offers more picturesque details.

The melody here is related to the one I use; the last two lines are nearly identical. The first phrase, however, is very different; my version clusters about G whereas this one clusters about the tonic E. (If that doesn't mean anything to you, think of it this way: Mine sounds like the tenor line to the Boggs version.) Both are made for clawhammer banjo; if you want, you can set up in Em and just flail away. You can add some spice by hammering in A notes at appropriate points. And the tenor harmony is almost trivial. So go ahead, have fun. Just don't listen to the words too closely.

Pretty Polly

Complete Lyrics:

I courted Pretty Polly the live-long night
I courted Pretty Polly the live-long night
Then left her next morning before it was light.

Polly, pretty Polly, come go away with me,
Before we get married some pleasure to see.

He led her over the fields and the valleys so wide
Until pretty Polly, she fell by his side.

Oh Willie, oh Willie, I'm afraid of your ways
I'm afraid you will lead my poor body astray.

Pretty Polly, pretty Polly, your guess is just right
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.

She threw her arms around him and trembled with fear
How can you kill the poor girl that loves you so dear?

There's no time to talk and there's no time to stand
Then he drew his knife all in his right hand.

He stabbed her to the heart and her heart's blood did flow
And into the grave pretty Polly did go.

He threw a little dirt over her and started for home
Leaving no one behind but the wild birds to mourn.


Versions of this song can be found in many books. I've seen it in The Bluegrass Songbook, as well as the Music for Millions Hootenany Song Book.

More scholarly versions are equally common. Malcolm Laws gives an extensive bibliography in British Broadsides (where this is item P36), but many of these are "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter."

Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs lists three versions, and other Ozark versions have been found. Lorraine Wyman and Howard Brockway listed two versions from the Appalachians. There are even Canadian versions known.

The number of recordings is simply too large to list here. In addition, Woody Guthrie used the tune for his song "Pastures of Plenty."

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