Pretty Polly

Rising to the top of the most well-known murder ballad in bluegrass music is “Pretty Polly.” Based on an actual murder, legends tell that the cruel murder of Pretty Polly was at the hands of a ship’s carpenter by the name of John Billson near Gosport, England. The ballad was first printed in about 1727 as “The Gosport Tragedy,” and sung to the tune of “Peggy’s Gone Over Sea.” It tells the chilling tale of Billson’s murder of his pregnant girlfriend and the flight aboard the ship M.M.S. Bedford. The story takes a haunting turn when the seaman Charles Stewart was confronted in the dark hold of the ship by a ghost with a baby in her arms. When questioned by Captain Edmund Hook, the real villain saw the ghost of his lover before him, fell to his knees, and confessed to the ghastly crime. He later died aboard ship, presumably of scurvy. The ballad of Pretty Polly was first recorded by John Hammond on April 8, 1925. It has become a career song for Ralph Stanley. This version is from the March 30, 1938 recording by the Coon Creek Girls.

Pretty Polly

Oh Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Oh Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married some pleasure we’ll see.

Where is Pretty Polly, oh yonder she stands,
Where is Pretty Polly, oh yonder she stands,
Gold rings on her fingers and her lily white hands.

I led her over hills and valleys so deep,
I led her over hills and valleys so deep,
And then Pretty Polly she began to weep.

Willie, oh Willie, I’m afraid of your ways,
Willie, oh Willie, I’m afraid of your ways,
I’m afraid you are going for to lead me astray.

Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right,
Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right,
I dug on your grave the biggest part of last night.

We went a little further and what did she spy,
We went a little further and what did she spy,
A new dug grave with a spade lying by.

She threw her arms around me and begged for her life,
She threw her arms around me and begged for her life,
So deep into her bosom I plunged the fatal knife.

She fell to the ground and the blood it did flow,
She fell to the ground and the blood it did flow,
And then to her grave pretty Polly did go.

I threw the dirt around her and turned to go home,
I threw the dirt around her and turned to go home,
And left Pretty Polly for the birds to weep and mourn.

Now to the devil the debt I must pay,
Now to the devil the debt I must pay,
For killing Pretty Polly and running away.

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From Rural Roots of Bluegrass by Wayne Erbsen

 

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