“Pretty Polly (II)”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1916 (Wyman-Brockway I)
Keywords: homicide burial betrayal
Found in: US(Ap,MW,So) Canada


Willie urges Polly to go riding with him "some pleasure [to] see" before they get married. Although she is "afraid of [his] ways," she comes, only to find her new-dug grave awaiting her. Willie kills and buries her and heads home (or out to sea)


This much-shortened form of "The Gosport Tragedy" has now taken on a life of its own. Although no clear line between the two can be drawn, I tend to call the piece "The Gosport Tragedy" if it includes the ghost and "Pretty Polly" if it omits.

One of Cox's texts (the C text, which also has a tune) was called by the informant "Young Beeham." There is no basis for this in the text of the song. One has to think this the result of some sort of confusion with "Young Beacham." - RBW

Many if not most American versions are probably traceable back to B. F. Shelton's recording, which was enormously (and deservedly) popular.

According to J. M. Jarrell of Wayne Co., WV, cited by J. B. Cox in "Traditional Ballads Mainly From West Virginia," in the early 19th century one Polly Aldridge was murdered by William Chapman, who was convicted and executed in Martin Co., KY, and this ballad was being sung about the killing c. 1850. - PJS

Same tune

Cross references



  1. Randolph 153, "Pretty Polly" (2 texts plus an excerpt, 1 tune)
  2. BrownII 64, "The Gosport Tragedy" (3 texts plus 1 excerpt and mention of 1 more; Laws lists the "A" text as P36A, and the rest as P36B, but "D" and probably "C" are "Pretty Polly")
  3. Brewster 64, "Pretty Polly" (1 text plus a fragment)
  4. Leach, pp. 698-700, "The Gosport Tragedy" (2 texts, but only the second goes with this piece; the first is, obviously, "The Gosport Tragedy")
  5. Wyman-Brockway I, p. 79, "Pretty Polly" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Wyman-Brockway II, p. 110, "Pretty Polly" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Fuson, pp. 69-70, "Pretty Polly" (1 text)
  8. McNeil-SFB1, pp. 140-141, "Pretty Polly" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. JHCox 89, "Come, Pretty Polly" (3 texts, 1 tune)
  10. JHCoxIIA, #17A-C, pp. 73-78, "Pretty Polly," "Come, Polly, Pretty Polly" (2 texts plus an excerpt, 2 tunes; the "A" text is the full "Cruel Ship's Carpenter" version; "B" is the short "Pretty Polly (II)"; the "C" fragment is too short to tell but has lyrics more typical of the latter)
  11. MHenry-Appalachians, pp. 53-54, "" (1 text, very short even by the standards of this worn-down song)
  12. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 128-134, collectively titled "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" but with individual titles "Pretty Polly," "Dying Polly," "Pretty Polly," "Pretty Polly," "Pretty Polly," "Oh, Polly!" (6 texts; 5 tunes on pp. 395-398; of these only the "C" text has a ghost; in "D" and "E" there is no ghost but Willie's ship sinks; these presumably should file with Laws P36, while "A," B," and "F" go here)
  13. Lomax-FSUSA 84, "Pretty Polly" (1 text, 1 tune)
  14. Darling-NAS, pp. 143-144, "Pretty Polly" (1 text)
  15. Silber-FSWB, p. 227, "Pretty Polly" (1 text)
  16. DT 311, PRETPOL2*
  17. Roud #15
  18. BI, LP36B