Monday, April 23, 2012

Remember their names

I was at the New England Folk Festival this weekend, listening to a ballad singer from Kentucky singing “Pretty Polly.” It's a classic murder ballad in which Polly's jealous lover brings her to the woods:

Oh Willie, oh Willie, I'm afraid of your ways
I'm afraid you will lead my poor body astray.

Pretty Polly, pretty Polly, your guess is just right
I dug on your grave the best part of last night.

He stabbed her to the heart and her heart's blood did flow
And into the grave pretty Polly did go.

And it struck me, as it sometimes does, how full this tradition is of violence to women. Yes, there are ballads where men get killed by other men. And there is a little female-on-female violence, as in “The Twa Sisters.” There's plenty of suicide and occasional infanticide.

But most often, it's men killing women. A ballad about a female wrongdoer is one where she cheats on her lover. A ballad about a male wrongdoer is usually one where he murders his lover.

There's the supremely creepy “Longlankin”:

My lady came down
Not thinking any harm
Longlankin stood ready
To catch her in his arms.

There's blood in the kitchen
There's blood in the hall
There's blood in the parlor
Where my lady did fall.

There's the highwayman ballad “All Alone and Lonely” (with a very amateur robber who somehow doesn't have any better weapon than a penknife):

It's will you be a robber's wife?
All alone and lonely
Or will you die by my penknife?
Down by the green woodsidey-o

I will not be a robber's wife
All alone and lonely
And so he took her own sweet life
Down by the green woodsidey-o.

As a teenager, I loved the gory ballads. Now I feel the weight of them. From the forests of England to the deserts of Juarez, the murders are real. A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Seeger singing “Tom Dula”, about an actual murder from 1866.

You killed poor Laura Foster,
And you know you're bound to die.

Peggy paused the song and said, “I want to remember their names, the women who died.”

No comments: