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Ghost Stories in Song for Halloween

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Halloween is on its way, and this year the Library of Congress has decided to make it extra-special, with a pop-up exhibition of our best spooky treasures. The event is called LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery, and we hope you’ll visit us for the scary fun. As part of the effort, I’ve been looking through AFC’s collections for “Ghost Stories” and “Halloween Traditions,” two of the exhibit’s themes. In previous posts, I presented some photos of Halloween traditions, and a devilish folktale by Bessie Jones. Of course, the American Folklife Center is also known for its extensive folksong collections, and we do have lots of ghost stories that come in the form of songs. In this blog, you’ll be able to hear three of our best ghostly ballads.  These songs and several more will be included in a listening station at the exhibition, so come visit if you want to hear more!

The Unquiet Grave

This is a detail from a  2011 photo by Carol M. Highsmith entitled “Ancient Cemetery, located in Hartford, Connecticut.” Although the original is a beautiful color photo, it’s spookier this way! See the original here.

We’ll begin with the great Jean Ritchie singing “The Unquiet Grave,” which is both a tender love song and a frank conversation with a ghost. The ballad was recorded from Ritchie by Herman Norwood in the Library of Congress recording lab, in the very building where I’m writing this blog, in May 1951. The recordings were supervised by Duncan Emrich, then head of the Library’s Folklore Section, a precursor of the American Folklife Center. Since then, Jean’s own collections and others featuring her music have been added to the Center’s archive…read more about her in this blog post by me and this one by archivist Marcia Segal.

My own dear folklore mentor, Kenneth S. Goldstein, also recorded Jean Ritchie singing this song for her Folkways LP British Traditional Ballads in the Southern Mountains, Vol. 2. In the notes to that album, Kenny commented on her performance:

Jean Ritchie’s Kentucky version, learned from her Uncle Jason, is almost identical (with a few minor verbal variations) with Child’s A text. It is notable for its exhibition of several universal popular beliefs, including a talking ghost, the idea that excessive grief on the part of mourners disturbs the peace of the dead, the troth plight that binds lovers even after death (with the death-kiss perhaps indicating a return of the troth), and the belief that the kiss of a dead person may result in death. Jean Ritchie’s version, truly exquisite as to both its poetry and music, is a valuable addition to our recorded ballad lore.

(From the liner note pdf here.)

The English singer and folklore expert Shirley Collins pointed out in the liner notes to her own Folkways LP False True Lovers (written with Alan Lomax) that the song is particularly relevant to women:

This is one of the classic pieces of English folk song literature. From one point of view it is a feminine fantasy or a wish, perhaps for the death of a lover, perhaps for a way of arranging a night visit by the lover, perhaps for a way of showing how strong her love is, perhaps of a feeling of guilt. Certainly, it is a ghost story designed to delight the imagination of young women. Finally, it shows the survival of ancient and widely distributed primitive beliefs about the treatment of the dead.

(From the liner note pdf here.)

In the liner notes to another album, The Power of the True Love Knot, Collins also said this about “The Unquiet Grave”:

This song is a tender and magical expression of an ancient community belief: a very proper belief that when the mourning of a lover’s death started to drain life from the living, love was being misused. Tears flowed into the Styx, and the river swelled and became impassable, so the dead come back and warn the quick.

(Quoted from the Mainly Norfolk site.)

Jean Ritchie speaks to Duncan Emrich during her 1951 visit to the Library of Congress, when she recorded “The Unquiet Grave.” Library of Congress Photo.

“The Unquiet Grave” is a widespread popular ballad, given the number 78 in Francis James Child’s book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and Roud 51 in the Roud Folk Song Index. It was sung all over Britain and Ireland, but was less common here in the United States, making Ritchie’s version an unusual treat.  See the lyrics below, and hear it in the player right under that:

The Unquiet Grave
sung by Jean Ritchie
AFC 1951/019

The cast iron gravestone of Rosana Ireland Babington was moved from Weymouth, Maine to the Batsto Museum in Burlington County, NJ. It was photographed by the Historic American Buildings Survey, and has the survey number HABS NJ-882. See the original here.

“The wind doth blow today, my love
With a few small drops of rain.”
I never had but one true love
And she in the cold grave has lain.

I will do as much for my true love
As any young man may.
I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave
For a twelve month and a day.

The twelve months and a day being up
The dead began to speak:
“Oh who is this sits on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”

“It is I my love sit on your grave
And will not let you sleep.
I crave one kiss from your cold sweet lips
And that is all I seek.”

“You crave one kiss from my clay cold lips.
My breath smells earthly strong.”
“If you had one kiss from my cold clay lips
Your time would not be long.”

“Down in yonder’s garden green
Love, where we used to walk,
The fairest flover that ever bloomed
Is withered to a stalk.”

“The stalk is withered dry, my love.
So must our hearts decay.
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away.”


The Three Babes

Illustration by H.M. Brock for “The Wife of Usher’s Well.” At the crowing of the cock outside the window, the three ghosts rise from the bed and leave.  This appeared as a color plate in the book A Book of Old Ballads, edited by Beverley Nichols. The book has entered the public domain. See it online here!

Our next ballad tells the chilling tale of a mother who wishes for a visit from her three dead sons. They return as rather stern and religious ghosts. Francis James Child called this ballad “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” and it was often collected in America as “The Three Babes” or “The Lady Gay.” The ballad is number 79 in Child’s collection and Roud 196 in the Roud index.

In some older versions of this song, the three sons are young men, not babes, and they lie down in the bed she has prepared, but the crowing of the cock warns that they must leave before dawn. The mother walks her children back to the gates of heaven (represented as a chapel on a green road), and is told by Jesus to prepare for her own death by repenting her wickedness in calling her children home from Heaven. Nine days later, she herself dies and joins her children in Paradise.

Our version is a simpler, rather homely tale. It was sung by Isaac Garfield Greer (known as I.G. Greer or simply “Ike”), with dulcimer accompaniment by his wife, Willie Spainhour Greer. It was recorded in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1941, by Fletcher Collins, and is in AFC’s Fletcher Collins Collection. Greer was a history professor and folksong collector at what is now Appalachian State University, and his own collections of manuscript and typescript folksongs are worth visiting on the university’s website.  Interestingly, in the questionnaires that they sent to Ray M. Lawless in 1954, which are now part of the Ray M. Lawless Collection, Mrs. Greer listed ”‘Three Babes’ or ’Lady Gray'” as one of her five favorite songs, but Dr. Greer did not! Mrs. Greer also told Lawless that her dulcimer (pictured below) was over 100 years old at that time.

Please enjoy the Greers’ rendition of “Three Babes.” Once again, the lyrics are just above the player so you can follow along.

The Three Babes
Sung by Isaac Garfield Greer with dulcimer by Willie Spainhour Greer
AFC 1939/003

Willie Spainhour Greer and Isaac Garfield Greer, billed as “Dr. and Mrs. I.G. Greer” performed traditional ballads from the Appalachian region, especially their home area in North Carolina. Dr. Greer was a folksong collector who took down the words of the songs in manuscript form. Mrs. Greer had musical training, could write out music notation, and created her dulcimer arrangements herself. They made several commercial recordings, as well as recordings for the Library of Congress. They sent this publicity photo to Ray M. Lawless in 1954, and it came to AFC as part of his collection.

There was a lady of beauty rare,
And children she had three;
She sent them away to the north country
For to learn their grammary.

They’d not been there so very long,
Scarcely three months and a day,
When there came a sickness all over the land
And swept them all away.

And when she came this for to know
She wrung her hands full sore
Saying “Alas alas my three little babes
I never shall see anymore.”

“Ain’t there a king in heaven,” she cried,
Who used to wear a crown?
I pray the Lord will me reward,
And send my three babes down.”

It was a coming near Christmas time,
The nights were long and cold;
When her three little babes come running down
To their dear mammy’s home.

She fixed them a bed in the backmost room,
All covered with clean white sheets;
And over the stuff, a golden one,
That they might soundly sleep.

“Take it off, take it off,” said the oldest one;
“Take it off, we say again.
Oh woe, oh woe, to this wicked world,
So long since pride began.”

She spread a table for them there,
All covered with cakes and wine;
And said “Come eat, my three little babes,
Come eat and drink of mine.”

“We do not want your cakes, mammy;
We do not want your wine;
For in the morning at the break of day,
With the Savior we must dine.”


Pretty Polly

This 1801 chapbook cover shows an illustration from “The Gosport Tragedy,” an early form of “Pretty Polly.” It corresponds to the verse in which Polly asks Willie not to go to sea: “The king wanted seamen to go upon sea/ What caused this young damsel to sob and to say,/ “Oh William, oh William, don’t you go on sea/ For don’t you remember what you’ve told to me?” See the original at the National Library of Scotland.

Our final supernatural ballad is one of AFC’s finest versions of “Pretty Polly.” A lot of versions of this song from the United States tell only the first half of the tale: in an act of premeditated ruthlessness, Willie kills Pretty Polly and throws her into a grave he has been preparing for days. In this form it’s a staple of the American murder ballad repertoire. But earlier versions from Britain told a longer story in which William ran away to sea and was pursued by Polly’s ghost. Those versions are often called “The Gosport Tragedy” or “The Cruel Ship Carpenter” and were widely published on broadsides and in chapbooks. It’s classified as P 36 in G. Malcolm Laws’s index American Balladry from British Broadsides, and as Roud 15 in the Roud index.

As I’ve said, in the oral tradition of the United States, the whole episode of the ship and the ghost tended to be lost, and the song ended with Willie’s murder of Polly. (Laws characterized such versions as P 36 B.) But in Canada, longer versions retaining the ghostly theme were more common. In 1938, a Michigan lumberjack with French Canadian heritage, Fred Carrière, sang it for Alan Lomax in a very complete version that may reflect his Canadian roots. (Carrière’s version is very similar to one recorded from the Newfoundland ballad singer Dorman Ralph by another friend and mentor of mine, now passed away, the folklorist Peter Narváez.)

It’s interesting to note that Fred Carrière states clearly at the beginning of the disc recording that he composed the song, and said so again when asked by Alan Lomax. However, he seems to have been exaggerating his contribution.

As Jim Leary notes:

Lomax’s recorded conversations with Carrière reveal that he had a prodigious memory for traditional songs in both French and English, as he claimed to have once learned five songs in a single night. He had also composed several songs, as he explained to Lomax, by fixing “an air” in his mind and then working out lyrics in his head for several weeks until he was satisfied.

It’s possible that Carrière did compose some songs in that manner, but “Pretty Polly” was not one of them. The tune is not original; it’s in the tune family descended from “Villikins and his Dinah,” best known in America for its variant “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” Below, you can compare his lyrics with a broadside version, which I cropped from an image placed online with a Creative Commons License by the National Library of Scotland. As you can see, Carrière’s version is really quite a typical broadside text, with some great rationalizations of place names and other details–note how “Worcestershire” becomes “western shores!”

Thus, it seems unlikely that Carrière contributed much to either the text or the tune. Still, it’s a fantastic ballad, complete with bloody murder, and even bloodier supernatural revenge…one of the scariest songs in the English-language folksong repertoire.

Please enjoy Fred Carrière’s “Pretty Polly.” The audio player is right below the lyrics.


Pretty Polly
Sung by Fred Carrière
AFC 1939/007

Broadside text of “Pretty Polly,” to compare to the text at left. This is a detail cropped from an image placed online with a Creative Commons License by the National Library of Scotland. See the original here.

It was in those western, those fair western shores
There lived a young damsel so handsome and fair.
She was courted by a young man who called her his dear
And was known as a trader, a ship carpenter

The king wanted seamen to go upon sea
What caused this young damsel to sob and to say,
“Oh William, oh William, don’t you go on sea
For don’t you remember what you’ve told to me?”

Early in the morning before it was day,
He called upon her those words he did say,
“Come Polly, come Polly, come along with me,
Before we get married our friends for to see.”

He led her through mountains and valleys so deep,
What caused this young damsel to sob and to weep.
She sobbed and she wept, those words she did say,
“I’m afraid to my heart you have led me astray.”

“Tis true, tis true,” young William did say
“For many long nights I’ve been digging your grave.”
When she saw her grave open and the spade lying by,
She wrung her poor hands and most bitterly cried.

“Oh pardon, oh pardon,” pretty Polly did say,
“I lived no longer than to become your wife.
I’ll sail this world round and set you quite free,
If you only will pardon my sweet babe-a-nee.”

“No pardon, no pardon, there is no time to stand.”
And for the time had drew a knife to hand.
He pierced her through the heart till her life blood it flowed
And into the grave her sweet body did throw

He covered her over so snug and secure,
So no one would find her he thought he’d made sure.
He jumped up on board ship to sail this world round
Before this young murder would ever be found.

He had not sailed for over a day
When the captain came up and those words he did say,
“There’s murderer on deck, boys, and the deed has been done
And the ship must be hunted or cannot sail on.”

Up stepped a sailor who says, “It’s not me.”
Up stepped another and the same he did say.
Up stepped young William who stamps and he swore,
And he says, “It’s not me, I will vow and declare.”

As he was returning from the Captain with speed
He met pretty Polly, which made his heart bleed.
She ripped him, she tore him, she ripped him in three
Saying, “This is for the murder of sweet babe-a-nee.”


Comments (6)

  1. Very interesting article, thank you.

    Now it might be because I’m in the UK, but the sound files do not play.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris. It’s probably not because you’re in the UK. It’s more likely either a temporary technical issue or something in our site that doesn’t play well with your browser settings. Because the sound files are hosted on a different server than the text, it can sometimes happen that the sound file server experiences technical difficulties but the text looks fine. Please check back again, and try several different browsers if you’re able to. Thanks again!

  2. I was searching for some good Halloween songs. How wonderful to find these splendid examples! Thank you for presenting them here in such a useful, informative and entertaining manner.

  3. I create my own creepiest folklore songs to Disney villain songs! Kenny Ortega can help do Disney villain song and he will help us together as a team.

  4. Love this. Want more. Could look through info like this all day. As a matter of fact, I have!

  5. Great Songs! I didn’t know the full story of “Pretty Polly” until now. Another good ghost song is “Polly Von”. There’s a recording of it in the Smithsonian Folkways album “Classic Folk Music” sung by Paul Clayton. Also, Leroy Troy’s recording of “Marie Laveau” is a fun one.

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