AppLit Home Appalachian Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon

"Polly Vaughn"


Moser, Barry. Polly Vaughn: A Traditional British Ballad Designed, Illustrated, and Retold in an American Setting. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. N. pag. A prose retelling of an old ballad that has many variants in America as well as Europe. Moser blends realistic, melodramatic, and supernatural details, using the context of a family feud in Cold Iron Mountain. Moser was inspired by storytelling traditions of his Tennessee family and the voices of contemporary hunters, as well as the ballad. Jimmy, a young miner, is hanged for accidentally killing Polly, a humble mountain tomboy, before their wedding. Moser’s interpretation of the story as a mid-twentieth-century tragedy about the horrors of male hunting traditions and the injustice of a family feud in a mountain community builds on the ballad’s spare lyrics, which convey both the tone of a local news report and the intense emotions of star-crossed young lovers and their families. The tragic love story and strong anti-hunting theme are of interest to older readers. Moser's paintings in all three of his Appalachian fairy tale books contain striking portraits of the characters. This book also has captions that give the flavor of news reports to the tragic events.

Portrait of Polly by Barry Moser

The ballad exists in many versions. In America the heroine is known as Molly Vaughn, Polly Van, Molly Banding, Molly Vaunders, Polly Bon or Ban, and Polly Bond, but often the ballad is called “Molly Bawn” or “Shooting of his Dear.”  In some older versions the heroine is transformed into a swan, or is mistaken for a swan. Lyrics can be found in a variety of song collections in books and web sites such as those listed below.

NOW IN APPLIT: "Molly Vaunder," collected by Juanita Dawson, with illustration by Corey Knoll, lyrics, audio singing, and student activities, in Ghosts section of West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature, with background and writing activity. Jimmie is hunting in the dark and rain when he shoots his love by mistake, and her ghost says he took her for a swan in her white apron. She is also called Molly Vaughn in the same song (formerly in West Virginia World School's web site, now reprinted in AppLit).

"Polly Vaughn." Has lyrics from Europe, music, and folklore background, in

Mudcat Cafe: A Magazine Devoted to Blues and Folk Music contains three versions of lyrics in which the heroine is mistaken for a swan. In one there is no murder charge or trial. In the version called "Molly Bawn" the other girls are glad Molly, "the pride of Glen Allen," dies and will no longer "shine above them like a mountain of snow." Use the search box at Mudcat Cafe to find the lyrics.

Cecil J. Sharp and Maud Karpeles. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. 2 vols. London: Oxford UP, 1932.

W. K McNeil, ed. Southern Folk Ballads. Vol. 1. American Folklife Series. Little Rock, AK: August House, 1987.

Recording of "Polly Vaughn" by The Dillards from Missouri. There is a Time (1963-70). Santa Monica, CA: Vanguard Records, 1991. Their chorus:
"For she'd her apron wrapped about her
And he took her for a swan
Oh and alas it was she, Polly Vaughn."

"Little Omie's Done Got Wise" by Bev Futrell is a feminist satire of the Omie Wise and Pretty Polly ballads, recorded by the Reel World String Band (a group of Appalachian women) on their CD The Coast is Clear (Lexington, KY: Reel World String Band, 2001). The lyrics call for "no more songs where the lady always dies." The song refers to several traditional ill-fated heroines: "It'll take more than you got to best Darlin' Corey...She'll be fooled by no more lies/Little Omie's done got wise... Pretty Polly's got her own Harley now....You can't say we look like swans with our aprons on" (this last line referring to Polly Vaughn).

See also "Polly is Dead," a poem written by Drew Howell in response to Moser's book.

Pretty Polly and Mister Fox are about murdered women.

The Ghosts section of West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature also includes The Greenbrier Ghost.

Other Appalachian transformation tales are listed in the Animal Tales Index.

Bibliography of Supernatural Tales from the Appalachian Mountains in AppLit.

For AppLit's discussion of several folklore adaptations by Moser, see "Transplanted in Appalachia:  Illustrated Folktales by Barry Moser" - essay by Tina L. Hanlon

See also Moser's other adapted tales set in Appalachia:

Moser, Barry. Tucker Pfeffercorn: An Old Story Retold. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

Moser, Barry. The Tinderbox. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. A retelling of "The Tinderbox" by Hans Christian Andersen, with a post-Civil War setting.

Moser, Barry. Good and Perfect Gifts: An Illustrated Retelling of The Gift of the Magi. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997. See description in Appalachian Christmas Picture Books - by Judy A. Teaford

Compare with:

Swan Maiden tales from Europe and Asia are reprinted online at Swan Maidens, edited by D. L. Ashliman, who identifies them as tale type 400. These are like other "animal bride" tales in which a man gains control over a woman by stealing her animal or bird covering. He later loses her forever or gets her back.

In Sur La Lune Fairy Tales, Heidi Anne Heiner reprints a "Swan Maiden" tale from Joseph Jacobs' European Folk and Fairy Tales, 1916, with links to similar tales across cultures, illustrations, and other references.

Links checked 12/6/03   |   Top of Page   |   Last update: 8/7/10


Return to AppLit Folktale Index

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Links to Online Texts

AppLit Home

Site Index