It’s that time of year again for creepy music, and so it will be until winter finally fades (or at least until the solstice, when the days start growing longer again). In this installment of our continuing series Music For The Grim(m) Season, we bring you that particular subset of traditional folk music known as the Murdering Lover genre. Those acquainted with Anglo-Saxon Appalachian folk music will know exactly what I mean when I say there are songs that are purely about the misfortune of some person – usually a young woman – to fall for a lover who turns out to be lethal. The discovery comes too late, and so the cautionary tale. Sounds like folk music by Alfred Hitchcock, doesn’t it? Thus highly appropriate for this time of year.
Such songs have made their way into bluegrass, country & western music, even the blues and popular music (“Frankie and Johnny” would be an excellent example of the blues variety, and who hasn’t heard at least a few takes on that one?). Indeed, if you look through the catalog of traditional songs, tunes about deadly lovers seem to be folk music’s stock in trade. However, the tale of the deadly boyfriend isn’t restricted to American folk music or even to its English or Scots-Irish forebears: you can find such stories in the music of many European nations (there may be Asian, Middle Eastern, African or Native American equivalents, but as I’m unacquainted with their folk music traditions, I won’t speculate on that … but it wouldn’t surprise me). Murder, it seems, is universal, as is love – and it shouldn’t astound us that there are songs about the volatile combination of the two. In this case, our heroine Polly is belatedly hip to the homicidal Willie but doesn’t have the sense – or the ability – to run while she can, and is done in. Fortunately, Judy Collins can really put across a tale like this.
“Pretty Polly” is a classic American folk song of that genre and one of my favorite folk songs, period. I might have heard it in passing during my early teenage years when folk music was something I paid more attention to after Simon & Garfunkel got big (I outgrew it after grad school and stuck to jazz, blues and classical after that). However, I first really listened to this song when I heard Judy Collins’s version in 1968 on an album called Who Knows Where The Time Goes on Elektra Records. Back then, Judy Collins was still mostly a folk music purist and hadn’t gone all goofy over things like Jacques Brel and show tunes. As a straight-ahead folk musician at the start, she was every bit as earnest and as well endowed with a lovely voice as Joan Baez. Unlike Baez, however, Collins soon got into overproduced, over-orchestrated and commercialized music; I still cringe at what she did to Joni Mitchell’s spare ode to simple joys, “Chelsea Morning” (or even worse, Joni’s darker, ambivalent “Both Sides Now” – oy! So awful, and yet so popular with the unwashed, untutored mush-for-brains masses, who never got Mitchell’s point. Collins has the prettier voice, but Mitchell has always been the better and more influential musician. There’s just no accounting for taste).
Judy Collins eventually slid into commercialized folk-pop, her beautiful voice ripe for schmaltz and audiences who normally wouldn’t bother with folk music. But she certainly knew what to do with tragic folk songs, and when she stuck to guitars and voice, she was outstanding and traditional with the best of them. Pete Seeger couldn’t have found any fault with her. She recorded a number of classic tragic-story songs on her early albums, and “Pretty Polly” is one of the best, if not the best, IMHO. She draws out the drama, using her voice as a well-honed instrument and accompanies herself on acoustic guitar.
What you have here is the best damn creepy murder folk song ever, with an eerie, atmospheric feel and excellent arrangement, plus perfect accompaniment by Stephen Stills (then of Crosby, Stills & Nash) and other sidemen, all of whom get credit at the start of the music video. It’s as good a piece of folk-rock as has ever been recorded or as you’re ever likely to hear. The tension builds and builds to a climax; the musicians know exactly what they’re about and pull it off very well indeed. Consequently, it’s one of my favorite tracks of hers (in case you wondered, yes, CS&N’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was written for her – she really does have gorgeous, piercingly blue eyes, and she and Stills had an on-again, off-again relationship for years; besides, they all knew her back then, just as they knew Joni Mitchell, whose song “Woodstock” CS&N also recorded – at Woodstock. And if that doesn’t mean anything to you, then you’re probably Gen X or younger and really don’t know squat about the history of rock concerts, as that was probably the biggest and hippest one ever, anywhere. Lollapalooza and the rest don’t even come close).
At any rate, this is one of the finest performances that Collins ever gave and is probably the best recording of this song you’ll ever hear. If you didn’t already know the plot, as I didn’t when I first heard this (or the fact that this is another Murdering Lover tale), the music and story would duly sweep you up and Impress you. I swear, when I first bought this album (yes, kiddies – vinyl: it’s still the best recording medium for warm, realistic sound), I must have played that track a thousand times while listening to it on the best headphones I could afford, which were pretty good. The sound quality was tremendous. And proper stereo headphones – not earbuds – are still the best way to listen to this. You’ll be blown away. Perfect.
Meanwhile, sleep tight and just ignore all that howling at the moon outside and the scratching at the door. You weren’t expecting any werewolves anyway, were you? Naaaaah. Nighty-night!
Your own spooky spinmistress,