Pretty Polly (ballad)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

"Pretty Polly", "The Gosport Tragedy" or "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" (Laws P36, Roud 15) is a traditional English-language folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America, among other places.[1]

The song is a murder ballad, telling of a young woman lured into the forest where she is killed and buried in a shallow grave. Many variants of the story have the villain as a ship's carpenter who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant. When he goes back to sea, he is haunted by her ghost, confesses to the murder, goes mad and dies.[2]

American versions of the ballad, such as those of B.F. Shelton and Dock Boggs, tend to begin in the first person ("I courted Pretty Polly...") and switch to the third person for the murder ("he stabbed her to the heart"); Judy Collins' 1968 recording featured alternating verses switching back and forth between Polly and Willie's perspectives. American versions also tend to omit the reason for killing Pretty Polly and Willie's subsequent madness or haunting by Polly's ghost.[3]

The ballad is likely the musical basis for "Ballad of Hollis Brown" by Bob Dylan who played "Pretty Polly" himself in his early years.[4][5]

Woody Guthrie used the tune of "Pretty Polly" for "Pastures of Plenty".[6]

The song was performed by Hilarie Burhans for the closing credits of Season 2 Episode 6 Something Very Expensive for the HBO tv series Deadwood.

Notable artists who have performed "Pretty Polly"[edit]


  1. ^ "Cruel Ship Carpenter". English Folk Dance and Song Society. Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  2. ^ "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter". Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  3. ^ Wilentz, Sean; Marcus, Greil (2005). The rose & the briar: death, love and liberty in the American ballad. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0. Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  4. ^ Marcus, Greil (15 May 1998). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-5842-0. [page needed]
  5. ^ Gegenhuber, Kurt (15 March 2006). "The Celestial Monochord: Hollis Brown's South Dakota". Retrieved 4 June 2010. 
  6. ^ "Remembering the Old Songs: Pretty Polly, by Bob Waltz". Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1997. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 

External links[edit]