Buttkickin’ Halloween Song: “Pretty Polly” — Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn (2016)

Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly come go alone with me
Polly, Pretty Polly, go alone with me
Before we get married, some pleasures to see…

Hold on to your butts, people: we got ourselves yet another old-timey Appalachian murder ballad!

Old-timey Appalachian murder ballads are of course a longstanding tradition in this country, dating back centuries to the British Isles and brought over to North America by the earliest settlers and immigrants. They’re an indelible fabric in the American tapestry, which explains so much about this country upon which I can’t even begin to elaborate.

They also make for some wonderfully disturbing songs for Halloween, which brings us to Pretty Polly. Also known as “The Gosport Tragedy” and “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, and like most centuries-old murder ballads, Pretty Polly has evolved into a several variants over time.

Yet the soul of the song remains basically the same: a man invites his bride for a walk into the wilderness, where they discover a newly-drug shallow grave. She had previously voiced her concerns about “his ways” to him, and upon discovery of the grave, he confirms them to Polly. He then murders her, buries her, and faces judgment for it.

(Come to think of it, this storyline is reminiscent of Knoxville Girl, which we covered last year…)

In some versions of the song, the man is a carpenter, or a ship’s carpenter. Sometimes there’s a supernatural element involved: after he flees on the ship, it remains mired in the doldrums. Polly’s ghost appears and either drives him mad or kills him and drags him to Hell. Her pregnancy is hinted at, making the murder even more heinous.

In this banjo-driven folk take by the amazing Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn (do check out their eponymous 2016 album if you’re in any way an Americana fan), the supernatural elements are pared away, revealing a lean dark skeleton of a tale. No ghost, no ship, just an evil man of evil ways murdering his innocent bride. The final verse alleges his suicide, with his acknowledgment that Hell awaits him.

Pretty Polly is about as unnerving as a folk tale gets. It is capricious evil, evil for evil’s sake perhaps. Nihilism as an inevitable byproduct of the human condition.

Oh gentlemen and ladies, I bid you farewell
Oh gentlemen and ladies, I bid you farewell
For killing Pretty Polly my soul will go to hell…

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