AppLit Home Appalachian Tales of Strong Women Tina L. Hanlon
 


"Pretty Polly" or "Mister Fox" and "Little Omie Wise"

 

"Mister Fox." In Richard Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs (1956; Rpt. Dover, 1971); reprinted in Smith, Jimmy Neil, ed. Why the Possum's Tail is Bare and Other Classic Southern Stories. New York:  Avon, 1993.  A brave young woman, hiding in a tree, sees her beau, Mr. Fox, digging a grave. At his house, aided by a talking parrot, she finds the bodies of murdered womenAt a party, Polly uses the hand of a murdered woman, a riddle, and a story she pretends is a dream to expose the murderer, who is tried and hanged. Chase's notes link the tale with the first scene in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, "The Robber Bridegroom" (German tale) and "Mr. Fox" in Joseph Jacobs (see below).

Pretty Polly. Collected by Emory L. Hamilton. James Taylor Adams Collection, Blue Ridge Institute, JTA-2324. This is a link to the full text in AppLit. This version is similar to the one published by Chase, but Polly has no beau in the beginning. She reluctantly goes to visit three men she had met (following the trail of ashes they leave for her), finds a severed hand in her food, and realizes they want to murder her. A talking parrot warns her about losing her heart's blood. Another severed hand is that of her cousin and Polly is present when this woman is murdered, before she escapes and exposes the men.

"Mr. Fox." In William Bernard McCarthy, ed. Cinderella in America: A Book of Folk and Fairy Tales. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. pp. 326-27. This is a riddle in a four-line verse with a prose solution, about an unnamed girl tricking her lover and another man with the riddle as they dig a grave and talk of murder and robbery. This riddle comes from the notes to "Jack and His Master" in Leonard Roberts, South From Hell-fer-Sartin.' Another Bluebeard/Robber Bridegroom tale in McCarthy's book is "The Pea Story" from New York state, a fairly long tale in which a young woman helps to catch the robber who seduced her (pp. 390-96). Other tales from this book (chapters 12 and 13 on southern mountain tales) are listed at Folktale Collections Indexed in AppLit.   

"Tom Fox." In Isobel Gordon Carter. "Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge." Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): pp. 340-74 (this tale on p. 372). Available online through library services such as JSTOR. A landmark article containing Jack tales told by Jane Hicks Gentry (1863-1925) and others, recorded by Carter in 1923. Carter comments on the decline of storytelling among mountain families who used to know them better, although they had not been recorded as ballads had been. This is one of six short tales told by Susie Wilkenson of eastern Tennessee. A woman goes to meet her sweetheart but she sees he has dug her grave. She climbs up a tall pine tree and sings a lament about the hole Tom Fox has made. It doesn't say more explicitly than this that she escapes. See also tales from this article below.                                               

Several other unpublished transcripts of the oral tale can be found in the James Taylor Adams collection in the Blue Ridge Institute.


Pretty Polly. Collected by Emory L. Hamilton, 1941 from Lovell J. Johnson.  JTA-9523. James Taylor Adams Collection, Blue Ridge Institute. This is a link to the full text in AppLit. In this ballad Polly is murdered by her lover William, but her ghost gets revenge at the end.

Pretty Polly. In a ballad made popular by country singers such as Ralph Stanley, Polly or Molly is simply murdered at the end by William, the man who takes her away. Several versions with different titles, with lyrics, music and audio (mostly from Arkansas), are online at The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, an Ozark archive edited by Dr. Michael F. Murray, Southwest Missouri State U. Pretty Polly, with traditional words and audio music, is also in the Muleskinner Jones web site on "terrible stories," where the song ends, "It's a terrible story but each word of it's true." The lyrics at  Sandy Denny: Pretty Polly emphasize that William owes a debt to the devil. See also various musicians performing this song at YouTube.com.


Omie Wise, Little Omie Wise, Ommie Wise, Poor Omie Wise, or Poor Naomi Wise—another ballad about a murdered woman. A 1975 recording of "Little Omie Wise" by Addie Graham is in the Berea College archive and Digital Library of Appalachia. See also a version with audio clip by Gilliam Banmon Grayson (1888-1930) from eastern Tennessee, in Anthology of American Folk Music, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Also recorded by the Hammons Family of WV, listed in The Library of Congress Shop. Also in John McCutcheon: How Can I Keep from Singing? Audio recording. June Appal Recordings. Appalshop, c. 1975 (also includes "The Devil and the Farmer's Wife," "Froggie Went a' Courtin'," and other traditional songs. With musicians Tom Bledsoe, Rich Kirby, Gary Slemp, and Jack Wright.) See also various musicians performing this song at YouTube.com.

Roote, Robert. "The Historical Events Behind the Celebrated Ballad 'Naomi Wise.'" North Carolina Folklore Journal, vol. 32 (Fall-Winter 1984): pp. 70-81. Discussion of historical background of the legend of "Poor Naomi" or "Omie Wise," which folklorist Arthur Palmer Hudson had called "North Carolina's 'principal contribution to American folksong,'" in the "Murdered Girl" tradition (p. 70). A girl named Omia Wise was murdered in Randolph County in 1807, and landmarks in Randleman are named Naomi, although details of her murder are uncertain. In an 1822 account, Naomi Wise was an orphan who was drowned in Deep River by a man when she tried to make him keep his promise of marriage. (No copy of the ballad is in the article.)

SATIRE: "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" (see Polly Vaughn for this last reference).


See also:

"Jack and His Master." In Leonard Roberts, South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. Lexington: U Press of Kentucky, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964. pp. 105-6. "Told by Janis Morgan, age 12, Leslie County...heard from her grandmother" (p. 243). The heroine is named Mary and the villains, who kill people during cotton pickin', are Jack and his master. When Mary goes off alone to meet them, the rocks and twigs and trees tell her, "O fair maiden, don't be so bold, / Your own heart's blood will soon turn cold." Mary hides in a "blood-hole" when the murderers drag in an old woman, kill her, and throw her ring into the hole. Later Mary tells what she saw as if it were a dream, producing the ring as evidence, and "everybody took Jack and his master out and killed them." Roberts' detailed notes affirm the likelihood of an English source, and include a riddle which he suggests is "the detached cante fable verses of this story" (p. 243). See below.

"Old Foster." In Isobel Gordon Carter. "Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge." Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): pp. 340-74 (this tale on pp. 359-61). A landmark article containing Jack tales told by Jane Hicks Gentry (1863-1925), recorded by Carter in 1923. Carter comments on the decline of storytelling among mountain families who used to know them better, although they had not been recorded as ballads had been. Jack is a servant who helps his aunt escape from a cannibal who has killed many women. While two other women struggle with him, he cuts off the hand of one. Jack's aunt tells the community, who think these women were killed by animals in the woods, that she dreamed about the old man seducing and killing women but he gives a series of denials until she produces the hand of one of the captive women. Then the people lynch Foster and bound out Jack. Available online through library services such as JSTOR. Also reprinted in Richard M. Dorson. Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1964, in a group of Jocular Tales in the section on Southern Mountaineers, with a group of Murder Legends and Ballads.

"Old Bluebeard." In Isobel Gordon Carter. "Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge." Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): pp. 340-74. A landmark article containing Jack tales told by Jane Hicks Gentry (1863-1925), recorded by Carter in 1923. Although the dangerous man who steals women is named Bluebeard, this tale has more in common with "OId Greasybeard" and "Old Fire Dragaman." Available online through library services such as JSTOR.

"Old Notchy Road." In Isobel Gordon Carter. "Mountain White Folk-Lore: Tales from the Southern Blue Ridge." Journal of American Folklore 38 (1925): pp. 340-74 (this tale on p. 373). Available online through library services such as JSTOR. A landmark article containing Jack tales told by Jane Hicks Gentry (1863-1925) and others, recorded by Carter in 1923. Carter comments on the decline of storytelling among mountain families who used to know them better, although they had not been recorded as ballads had been. This is one of six short tales told by Susie Wilkenson of eastern Tennessee. A wife and mother, traveling after her father dies, is led into a wilderness by a man she stays with. His neighbors living seven miles apart on his road suspect him of murder because he is getting rich. He tries to push the woman in a pit but she asks him to turn his back when he wants to her take off her clothes, and she pushes him in the pit. After she tells the neighbors, they find a thousand people he has murdered in the pit.

"The Beggar with the Basket." In Marie Campbell, Tales from the Cloud Walking Country (Indiana UP, 1958. Rpt. Athens: U of George Press, 2000), pp. 200-201.  Collected by Campbell in Kentucky in the 1930s. A girl puts her sisters' bodies back together and escapes from a murderous beggar. All three sisters go in a forbidden room but the third one escapes in a disguise of bird feathers.

"Darlin' Corey." Another ballad in which a woman lives a tough life and dies. She has a still and plays banjo. A 1953 recording of "Darlin' Cory" by Dave Crouch, recorded in Harlan County, KY, is in the Leonard Roberts Collection, Berea College archive. This and other recordings of this song are available in the Digital Library of Appalachia. See also many musicians performing "Darlin' Corey" at YouTube.com. Raymond Crooke, for example, sings this song on YouTube as well as "Little Maggie," another traditional song with similar lyrics.

"The Murdering Boyfriend." In Leonard Roberts (collector). Old Greasybeard: Tales From the Cumberland GapIllus. Leonard Epstein. Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1969. Rpt. Pikeville, KY: Pikeville College Press, 1980. pp. 122-25. A boy invites his fiancee to his house and tells her not to open two rooms with the key. She finds blood in a forbidden room and then hides while he brings in another girl, cuts her throat, and takes her blood. The live girl cuts off the dead girl's hand when she can't get her ring off. She sets a trap for the boy by having her father invite him to a party, where she tells of a dream about the murder (with little rhymes about how her "foolish dream run so") and produces the hand with the ring as proof, so the men hang the murderer.

"The Three Yarn Balls." In Leonard Roberts (collector). Old Greasybeard: Tales From the Cumberland GapIllus. Leonard Epstein. Detroit: Folklore Associates, 1969. Rpt. Pikeville, KY: Pikeville College Press, 1980. pp. 58-60. An old neighbor man who is forbidden to go near three girls tempts them with colorful balls of yarn because "they like to knit purty things." The first two girls go in his forbidden room after cleaning his house and see people hung with their tongues split, so he does the same to them. The third girl follows the advice of a bird that says, "Wet it, seal it, and let it dry," so she re-seals the forbidden room, goes home with gifts, and tells on him. He is taken to court and hung.

Polly Vaughn is another tragic ballad about a heroine who dies but her lover kills her accidentally.

Compare "Pretty Polly" with:

The Robber Bridegroom. D. L. Ashliman reprints the Grimm Brothers' 1812 and 1857 versions. A bird in a cage and an old woman help the heroine escape from the robbers' home and use the finger of a murdered maiden to expose her murderous bridegroom and his gang.

Pretty Polly. The man wants Polly's parents' riches. He reveals that he's killed 6 king's daughters and before he can do her in, she pushes him in the sea. Several versions with different titles, with lyrics, music and audio, are online at The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, an Ozark archive edited by Dr. Michael F. Murray, Southwest Missouri State University.

"Mister Fox." From Joseph Jacobs, English Folk and Fairy Tales. Reprinted online at Rick Walton, Children's Author: Classic Tales and Fables Lady Mary is the heroine who exposes Mr. Fox's crimes to her brothers. Also Jacobs's "Mr. Fox" reprinted in Sur La Lune Fairy Tale Pages by Heidi Anne Heiner, who observes that "The story of Mr. Fox is very old and is even referred to by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing."

Tale Type 311. D. L. Ashliman, in How the Devil Married Three Sisters, reprints several tales in which women escape from evil husbands, including "Fitcher's Bird" by the Grimm Brothers.

"Fitcher's Bird" is retold by Jane Yolen in Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls. Illus. Susan Guevara. New York: Silver Whistle/Harcourt, 2000. Yolen mentions Perrault's Bluebeard and the Italian Silver Nose among others in "a long tradition of demon-lover stories" (p. 105). Yolen notes that in most versions the youngest sister, who is usually clever, is the savior, not her brothers. Yolen quotes Marina Warner's observation that the tale focuses on the woman's disobedience more than the villain's mass murders. In spite of cautions against female curiosity and excessive boldness in some versions, the woman must be bold to survive.

Bluebeard. D. L. Ashliman gives the texts of several variants of tale "types 312 and 312A about women whose brothers rescue them from their ruthless husbands or abductors."  He includes Andrew Lang's 1889 retelling of Charles Perrault's 1697 version.  Perrault's concluding morals warn of the dangers of female curiosity, and assert that no husbands of his age would be so terrible.

Bluebeard. Annotated text (from Perrault and Lang) with background, illustrations and links to related tales and literature at Sur La Lune Fairy Tales by Heidi Anne Heimer. Also in this web site is "How the Devil Married Three Sisters" (from Thomas Crane's Italian Popular Tales, 1885), in which the third sister is able to rescue her sisters from the devil's abyss, after he dressed like a handsome man and married each one in turn. After the three sisters reappear alive and laugh at him, "the devil lost his taste for marrying."

"The Attractions of 'Bluebeard': The Origins and Fortunes of a Folktale."  From chapter 1 of Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives. Literary criticism by Maria Tatar. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Excerpt at this publisher's web site.

"The Little Boy and His Dogs" is an African American version of the same tale type, edited (with dialect "normalized") by D. L. Ashliman, from Joel Chandler Harris, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, compiled by Richard Chase (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955), taken from Joel Chandler Harris, Daddy Jake, the Runaway; and, Short Stories Told After Dark (New York: The Century Company, 1889), no. 3.  In this tale, a little boy, with the help of his two dogs, escapes from two panthers disguised as fine ladies, and then rescues his sister from a bear by tricking the father bear into putting its head into scalding water.

"Pretty Polly Oliver" is an old English folk song about a woman who dresses as a soldier to find her lover in the wars. Reprinted online with background at Contemplator.com and at Mudcat Cafe: A Magazine Devoted to Blues and Folk Music (put "Polly Oliver" in search window for different versions with audio and discussion links). Also called Pretty Polly in The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, an Ozark archive (with audio) edited by Dr. Michael F. Murray, Southwest Missouri State University.


     Last update: 6/4/10   |   Top of Page   |   Links checked 5/29/06

 

Return to AppLit Folktale Index

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Links to Online Texts

AppLit Home

Site Index