Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pretty Polly dorian mode

I have created a simple tab for the very tragic old murder ballad usually known as Pretty Polly. This is only one variation of many, but it's probably the most common melody and lyrics. It's really creepy and spooky! Such murder ballads were often sung as parables, a way to teach young girls to look out for themselves and not fall prey to sweet talkin' strangers. Such ballads often contained advise about staying well away from fresh dug holes, pen knives, 'burglar's wine', and Deep Water.

So that you can become familiar with how it sounds, I'm linking to a couple of interesting sites where you can hear old recordings of it.
Here you can hear a 1960 recording of Harrison Burnett of Arkansas singing a pure unaccompanied version of the balled. I really like his singing: Pretty Polly.
And here, you will hear an old recording of Doc Boggs singing and playing it on his banjo, while a talented graphic artist has put together a truly fascinating and marvelous animated film to go along with the ballad as you listen- this is a totally rad Pretty Polly!...
Also, I just love this modern dance version (with dulcimer!) of Pretty Polly.

Remember, when you see that it's in Dorian mode, you can use pretty much any dorian tuning and the tab can be played the same way. In this case, a most typical dorian tuning would be perhaps DAG, and you can certainly tune to DAG and play my tab the very same way it's written, with the melody and key based on the fourth fret, dorian style. (To tune to DAG from DAD or DAA, you'd tune your melody string DOWN to G, not up.) But singing this ballad in the key of D is pretty impossible (for me anyway), so I lowered it to the key of G (GDC). Then, to make re-tuning from DAD easier, I suggested a reverse tuning of DGC instead of GDC, merely switching the two drones of D & G with each other. It's still a dorian tuning, the melody is still centered around the fourth fret and it's played the same way on the melody string in the tab.
My next post will be about the Dorian mode as the last mode of my Mode Series, but you can tune and practice it with Pretty Polly first anyhow. A couple of other tabs I've already posted on this blog to play in Dorian mode are Cluck Old Hen and Little Sadie.


  1. Thanks for putting this up. I tried it in DAG and DGC, also in DAC for comparison. (This is on a D strumstick with three 0.10" strings, tuned, e.g., to D4-A3-G3.)

    The comparison between DGC and DAC is instructive. DGC sounds much more eerie and archaic, at least to my ear.

    Again, this is a great series on modes.

  2. Ran across another good version with nice clawhammer banjo. (B.F. Shelton, 1927)

  3. OH GOSH! Pretty Polly! I love this old ballad! I've been working on it for months! Wish I'd looked here first...... it woulda saved me a bunch of time on the diatonic! Thanks Strumelia!

  4. Hi Bobby! Glad you are pleased! :)