Sunday, October 19, 2008
"Pretty Polly" is just one of many turns on the "murdered girlfriend" ballad.
The song follows a familiar plot line where a callous young man murders his girlfriend when he learns she is pregnant.
This tale of murder and betrayal is derived from a British ballad called "The Gosport Tragedy", but with one important difference. In the British original, the murderer tries to escape by sailing away, but a great storm comes up, and the ghost of his victim rises from the waves and tears him apart. In the American version, there is no such supernatural retribution; the murderer leaves Polly in her lonely grave, with only the wild birds to mourn.
This is a good example of a song used for spreading the news of the day, way back before radio, television or the Internet. The content of the news today is however strikingly similar.
In the player below, B. F. Shelton's version recorded on July 29 1927 at Bristol, Tennessee during the famous Bristol Sessions where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family made their first recordings.
I've also included a version by Dock Boggs (a tough old Virginian who, when he wasn't performing music worked in a coal mine or made bootleg booze) recorded in 1927 in New York City, for comparison.