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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

That's unquestionably true. By avoiding any hint that Willie's victim was pregnant, the American song removes all clues to his motive for killing her, and so denies us the chance to neatly rationalise his crime away. In the American song, Willie kills for no reason at all, and seems to consider it a trivial act. That makes him a far scarier figure than his English ancestor.
In 1938, The Coon Creek Girls became the first women to record Pretty Polly. They were a string band led by Lily May and Rosie Ledford, a pair of Kentucky sisters recruited to provide music for an Ohio country music station. Their rendition sticks too closely to their male predecessors' lyrics to offer any striking new perspective, but they were the first recording artists to let Polly speak for herself as Willie draws his blade:

"Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life,
Oh Willie, oh Willie, please spare me my life,"
So deep into her bosom he plunged that fatal knife.

Lily May Ledford sings most of the rest from Willie's point of view, showing no greater empathy with Polly than any of the male singers had managed. She's certainly a good deal tougher than Dock Boggs, who coyly insists that the dead Polly has merely "fell asleep" in his own version. (29)
The Stanley Brothers recording followed in 1950, underpinning Ralph Stanley's high lonesome vocals with a stately stand-up bass to fatten out the sound. It's notable not only for the slurs on Polly's past reputation which we've already discussed, but also for a masterly bit of misdirection in the opening verses, which depict Willie as a rather gentle figure:

"Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind,
Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind,
Let me sit down beside you and tell you my mind.

"Oh my mind is to marry and never to part,
My mind is to marry and never to part,
The first time I saw you, it wounded my heart."

Butter wouldn't melt. Even as he's giving Polly these loving assurances, though, Willie knows full well that the grave he's just dug for her is waiting, and that it won't be empty for long. The Stanley Brothers skip both the "spade lying by" verse, and any description of Polly's murder itself, perhaps fearing they'd put off the record buyers of the day, but Ralph Stanley re-instated both these scenes when he returned to the song in 1997 for a duet with Patty Loveless. (30)
So far, the musicians recording Pretty Polly had all come from the adjoining bluegrass states of Kentucky and Virginia, with even the Coon Creek Girls' radio career taking them no further than neighbouring Ohio. Pete Seeger, a New Yorker, broke that regional monopoly in 1957, edging the song across a genre boundary too from country into folk. Seeger used a canny selection of Shelton's and Boggs' verses which helped confirm a clear trend in the song's development so far.

Ball tells it all in the third person, then whips back the curtain to say 'and that killer was me'

Taking the period from 1927 to 1960 as a convenient snapshot of Pretty Polly's first third-of-a-century on disc gives us seven different recordings to consider. The performers are, in chronological order: John Hammond, BF Shelton, Dock Boggs, The Coon Creek Girls, The Stanley Brothers, Pete Seeger and Estil C. Ball. The first three of these average out at 11 verses each, the middle three at nine verses, and the final three at eight. We've seen already that the more you prune Pretty Polly, the stronger it becomes, so its no coincidence that Ball's version is both the shortest recording of the song so far and arguably the best. (31)
Ball was a white gospel singer from Virginia who often performed with his wife Orna. "The Balls' repertoire was legions deep, and was open to all manner of material," says the record producer Nathan Salsburg. "Not just hymns and country gospel, but play-party songs, blues, ballads, self-composed comic numbers and EC's sui generis guitar instrumentals." (32)
As Salsburg adds, Ball's rich baritone voice and unhurried guitar playing contrasts sharply with the keening vocals of many bluegrass singers and the frantic picking they rely on. To modern ears, he sounds far more like a blues performer than a country one. "Like the best of artists, the music he made was just a reflection of who he was," Salsburg writes. "In his case, thoughtful, diligent and honest, with severity, gentleness and humour in equal measure."
Often, it was the severity that came to the fore. Ball's best-known for his song Tribulations, a hair-raising catalogue of what we sinners can expect when the Book of Revelations plays out. "The Beast with horns will come upon you," Ball promises. "And the blood shall fill the sea". He peoples the rest of the song with angels pouring their wrath on humanity's head, men begging fruitlessly to die and Christ resolutely turning his back on anyone marked for damnation. This is a very vengeful God indeed, and Ball takes some relish in acting as his prophet.
There's a touch of the same Old Testament fervour in the Library of Congress recording Alan Lomax made of Ball in 1959. Performing solo this time, Ball distills Pretty Polly down to just six stark verses:

"Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married some pleasure to see."

She got up behind him, and away they did go,
She got up behind him, and away they did go,
Over the hills to the valley so low.

They went up a little further and what did they spy?
They went up a little further and what did they spy?
A new-dug grave with a spade lying by.

He stabbed her through the heart, her heart blood it did flow,
He stabbed her through the heart, her heart blood it did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw something over her and turned to go home,
He threw something over her and turned to go home,
Leaving nothing behind him but the girl there to moan.

Gentlemen and ladies, I'll bid you farewell,
Gentlemen and ladies, I'll bid you farewell,
For killing Pretty Polly will send my soul to hell.

Strip out the repetitions, and this takes just 12 lines to have Willie collect Polly, take her to the grave he'd already prepared, kill her, throw her into the ground and accept his own damnation. He doesn't even have the decency to give Polly a quick end, leaving her instead to choke slowly to death on the dirt of her own shallow grave. She's still moaning there as he walks calmly away. (33)
Ball's lyrics mark one of the best uses of the song's shifting perspective too. That opening quote from Willie aside, he tells the whole story in the third person, whipping back the curtain only in his final verse to say "and that killer was me". At half the length of Shelton or Hammond's versions, this is the tale's most brutal telling yet, and made all the more so by its refusal to offer any hint of the killer's motives. "Don't ask for the comfort of an explanation," Willie sneers as he strolls away. "There isn't one."
Lomax chose Ball's recording to represent Pretty Polly on his Bad Man Ballads collection, describing it on that record's sleeve as "America's favourite crime story, the same tale that Dreiser used in An American Tragedy."