Even by the standards of the genre, ‘Pretty Polly’ is a menacing murder ballad. It’s the tone of the young man’s voice. “You guessed about right,’ he replies to Polly’s concerns about his manner, “I dug on your grave the best part of last night.” Her submissive replies only make the song more chilling.
They act out parts written long before them. Even though he murders her in an act of control, Willy’s crime seems the only choice left to him. To Pretty Polly, her dying seems just as inevitable.
Aside from this grim fatalism, the power of the American version of this song lies in the one question left unanswered: why does he kill her? He has not been rejected. She says she will marry him. Yet he leads her into the woods and stabs her to death. This is not a crime of passion, it is a crime of loathing. He hates all women for how they make him feel about himself.
This song reminds me of the Isla Vista killings in California last year. Before his killing spree, 22 year old Eliot Rodger recorded himself on Youtube, “You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer. I waited a long time for this. I’ll give you exactly what you deserve, all of you. All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men.”
In the ballad, Willy takes a sinister pleasure in explaining himself. One version reads,
“She knelt down before him a pleadin’ for her life.
Rather be a single girl if I can’t be your wife.
Now Polly, Pretty Polly that never can be.
Polly, Pretty Polly that never can be.
Your past reputation’s been trouble to me.”
Is Willy insane? I don’t feel that. Cultural forces are at work on him. He sees himself as a victim. In a brilliant new essay by Malcom Gladwell in this week’s ‘New Yorker’, Gladwell addresses school shootings in America. Gladwell had previously explored the South’s ‘culture of honor’ in his book ‘Outliers‘*. (The same cultural forces that these paintings explore.)
Gladwell’s essay searches for a pattern in a phenomenon that does not seem to fit a pattern. By examining one particular case, and applying a decades-old model of sociologist Mark Granovetter, he shows the way that the option of violence can spread, through societal example, to become the only option, even for those who fully comprehend the crime is against their best interests.
Gladwell concludes: “The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
Willy’s frustration is far more real to him than Polly. What he really wants is an end to that, not Polly at all. Past ballads show him the only way forward.
These paintings were set in an abandoned ice factory in Asheville’s river district. The place had a history of violence, for years providing a home to drug addicts and transients.
I painted the triptych first. The first panel shows Willy waiting passively for the approaching police. The ballad ends, like many, with Willy turning himself in- an audience is essential to his deed. The triptych was all about the two doorways, one dark, one light, and the graffiti.
In the large single canvas, I played with the perspective- pulling one wall out to the left. The cavernous room is meant engulf the viewer. Between the closing figures, the debris and graffiti symbolize turmoil. The sky seems to have fallen as so many blue tiles into the dirt.
A few months after I completed these paintings, a real murder happened in this place. A troubled man, with a history of psychological disturbance, beat another to death. After consideration, the city decided to have the building demolished. The chimney remains.
In ‘Outliers’, Gladwell examines ‘Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South’ by Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen.
Greg and Lucretia Speas perform ‘Pretty Polly’ at Spartanburg Museum of Art