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I always find it a little hard to launch into a murder ballad without any type of preparatory remarks.
While I’m sure there was a time when the impulse to turn a cold, ghastly murder of an innocent (and in this case, pregnant, as the official story goes) woman into song was considered ordinary, these days it might come off a bit insensitive.
So, just for the record, I do not endorse cold blooded murder.
But really cool banjo tunes? Those I can get behind.
And this so happens to be a really cool banjo tune that’s about a murder. And murder ballads do happen to be a well established part of the Appalachian musical tradition.
This particular murder has been traced back to a story, known as “The Gosport Tragedy,” that was originally published in the 18th century, and based on real events. Our protagonists actual name was Molly.
In the early 20th century, Polly was reimagined as a banjo song in the states, and has remained a favorite of fans of the five. B.F. Shelton, Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, Stringbean, and Ralph Stanley have all recorded their own distinctive version.
It’s one that’s equally beloved by frailers and fingerpickers, and you’ll note I included two fingerpicked “breaks” in this video.
(RELATED: If you’d like to learn 2 and 3 finger style banjo, click here to check out the Brainjo course for Fingerstyle Banjo).
Polly has even slipped into the mainstream of pop culture, including a performance by Kevin Spacey’s character on House of Cards.
Notes on this Arrangement
Polly’s unsettling lyrics are further enhanced by the use of a “modal” scale. You’ll note here, though, that I’ve played it in standard G tuning (gDGBD).
It seems to be somewhat of a trend for bluegrassers to play this out of standard (which makes sense, since alternative tunings are less commonly employed), while clawhammerists often stick to G “modal” (gDGCD). But there’s no hard and fast rule here
Either tuning will work, though when playing out of standard, you may wish to avoid having the B string’s sympathetic vibrations ringing out (since it’s the B note in the G scale that gives the key it’s “major” sound). I address this by keeping the 2nd string fretted at the 3rd fret, to leave an ambiguous, neither major or minor G5 “power” chord (consisting of only G and D notes) ringing in the background. How much this is necessary will depend on the overall resonance, or “plunkiness,” of your instrument.
(NOTE: For those interested in the Brainjo banjos, and the tonal differences amongst the setup options, this particular song was played on a Tommy, which produces a wonderful clean and open tone with great note separation. Click here to learn more about the Brainjo banjos.)
gDGBD tuning, Brainjo level 3
Notes on the Tab
In this arrangement, I’ve tabbed out the part I play in the banjo “solo,” as well as the vocal backup I play on the banjo while singing.
Notes in parentheses are “skip” notes – to learn more about skips and syncopated skips, check out my video lesson on the subject.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.
PRIOR SONG OF THE WEEK EPISODES
- Episode 1: “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”
- Episode 2: “Gumtree Canoe”
- Episode 3: “Crawdad Hole”
- Episode 4: “Oh Susanna”
- Episode 5: “Freight Train”
- Episode 6: “Grandfather’s Clock”
- Episode 7: “Hop High Lulu”
- Episode 8: “Been All Around This World”
- Episode 9: “I’ll Fly Away”
- Episode 10: “Leaving Home”
- Episode 11: “Poor Orphan Child”
- Episode 12: “Mr. Tambourine Man”
- Episode 13: “Swanee River”
- Episode 14: “Big Sciota”
- Episode 15: “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”
- Episode 16: “Darling Corey”
- Episode 17: “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
- Episode 18: “America the Beautiful”
- Episode 19: “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”
- Episode 20: “Way Out There”
- Episode 21: “New Slang”
- Episode 22: “I Saw the Light”
- Episode 23: “Amazing Grace”
- Episode 24: “Blowin’ in the Wind”
- Episode 25: “Yankee Doodle”
- Episode 26: “Budapest”
- Episode 27: “Wildwood Flower”
- Episode 28: “Paradise”
- Episode 29: “Mountain Dew”
- Episode 30: “Blue Tail Fly”
- Episode 31: “Otto Wood”
- Episode 32: “Down on the Corner”
- Episode 33: “City of New Orleans”
- Episode 34: “Big Rock Candy Mountains”
- Episode 35: “Come to the Bower”
- Episode 36: “Old Kentucky Home”
- Episode 37: “Long Journey Home”
- Episode 38: “Dixie”
- Episode 39: “Hard Times”
- Episode 40: “Corrina Corrina”
- Episode 41: “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”
- Episode 42: “Johnson Boys”
- Episode 43: “Bad Moon Rising”
- Episode 44: “Reuben’s Train”
- Episode 45: “Let the Mermaid’s Flirt With Me”
- Episode 46: “Rocky Top”
- Episode 47: “Groundhog”
- Episode 48: “Lazy John”
- Episode 49: “The Gambler”
- Episode 50: “8 More Miles To Louisville”
- Episode 51: “Who’ll Stop the Rain”
Level 2 arrangements and video demos for the Tune (and Song!) of the Week tunes are now available as part of the Breakthrough Banjo course.
Click here for a current list of all the clawhammer songs and tunes currently available inside of The Vault