The Tenebrism of the Soul Sifted to the Surface in Four Ballads

[In the fall of 2013 I led two parts of a five Sunday Sunday School sequence at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta. The theme of the talks was “Twilight: Our Complicated Relationship with Darkness.” The talks were a precursor to a visit from Barbara Brown Taylor who was about to have her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark hit the streets. Her talk at All Saints was the annual Woodall Lecture for 2013.  Jere Wells, Assistant Head of The Westminster Schools, handled the other three of the talks. We prepared the talks without advance reading of the book. 

I have decided to publish my notes for the talk as I just revisited them for a talk I gave to one of our JanTerm courses (Appalachia: History, Music, and Culture) at Westminster. More information regarding Westminster’s JanTerm can be found HERE. I have edited out some specific bullet points regarding the murder ballads we listened to, but I believe the overall gist of the talk is intact. I have included links to the ballads, and I have copied the lyrics to “Pretty Polly” end of the entry.

The previous Sunday I had spoken about Caravaggio who had his own very complicated relationship with darkness. I may pull together those notes at a later date.] 

Greil Marcus called it, “The Old Weird America” and it is weird. A world where in the space of fifteen seconds of music and lyric we can move from the promise of marital union to the tragedy and brutality of premeditated murder. We move from the promise of comedy to the reality of crime. And the crime is close, relational, not anonymous—a young man fools a Pretty Polly, his betrothed, into following him into the woods where he kills her—his is a warped seduction where the seduced gives not simply her body, but her life, and strangely she doesn’t put up much of a fight. This is a crime that can only find shallow burial and a murderer that has only a short time on the run. His motive is announced but elusively vague as cause for the action that take place. It lives somehow beyond our intellect and into the space beyond it or perhaps better, it lives further inside of us than our intellect can go.

In the version of “Pretty Polly” we just listened to and watched, we see another phenomenon, that is, such music is not private music, shared secretly, but rather it is remarkably popular and public music—an NC-17 subject matter rendered in a G-rated setting. Joyously rendered, warmly received by an audience apparently oblivious to or in celebration of the darkness it portrays. Maybe the path of the song is so familiar to us somehow we don’t consciously make ourselves aware of its darkness. With all this in mind, I thought the topic of murder ballads, particularly juxtaposed with the religious music which lives in counter-intuitive partnership with it represented an apt topic for the series of talks entitled, “Twilight: Our Complicated Relationship with the Darkness “ of which this is the fifth and the last.

Last week we discussed the life and work of Caravaggio, the Italian painter of the late 16th and earl 17th centuries. In that class we thought about light and dark through the lens of one remarkable figure, whose life of stark contrasts between the sacred and the profane provided rich ground for discussion in the area Barbara Brown Taylor will speak of during her upcoming return to All Saints during which she will focus on her upcoming book: Learning to Walk in the Dark.

Today, however, our lens is different, and I believe more uncomfortable, because when we investigate Caravaggio we are looking at a figure who lived hundreds of years ago and led a life in extremis. He was violent, and on the run—as I said last week should Caravaggio have lived in our time, he most likely would have been painting from prison, a high security prison. Without too much difficulty, we can separate ourselves from his particular brand of humanness. He is an outlier, an outsider.

Today’s topic allows us no such distance or comfort, for this music is part of us, and in fact, while we can attempt to confine these songs to the past, such an attempt is flawed as the elements of these songs continue to recirculate culturally. “Nirvana,” the Seattle-based band from the early nineteen nineties provides an example in their rendition of “In the Pines,” a song dating back at least to the mid-1800s. Other interpreters of the song include Leadbelly, Bill Monroe, and Doc Watson. No traditional musicians worth their salt would fail to have it in their repertoire. This particular song somehow manages to have a beheading be its second most haunting image. The most haunting image of the song to me is a verse that Kurt Cobain left out: “the longest train I ever saw went down that Georgia line./I asked my captain for the time of day/He said he threw his watch away.” The image in the refrain completes a horrifying image of hell: “in the Pines, in the pines where the sun never shines and we shiver when the cold wind blows.” Note that here the sun never shines and watches are useless. What fascinates me most about this is that the “dark night of the soul” it relates is shared through popular music untraceable to its original author. This dark night of the soul is presented in the bright light. So for me it represents a turning out of some of what is deepest inside of us. To operate with the language we used regarding Caravaggio, we are confronted with our own personal chiaroscuro, our own soul’s tenebrism, and we are faced with it in the bright light of a public space like the Ryman Auditorium or a summer camp square dance. And notably we cheer and applaud when it is rendered well.

This morning I have picked four murder ballads: “Pretty Polly”, “Banks of the Ohio”, “Tom Dooley”, and “Omie Wise.” They share some characteristics that not all murder ballads share, and the versions of them I include lack components other versions have. Clearly they are not fully representative of the full range of murder ballads, but they will, I hope, serve our purpose well this morning.

Like Grim’s Tales or Jack Tales, these songs keep key components out of our view. For instance, why kill her in the first place? What is it that leads the young man, no matter the specific reason for his anger, to take the step that not only condemns her to death but also condemns him eternally?

We get little to no insight into the feelings of the participants. In stark contrast to the songs of modern singer/songwriters, we get almost no personal insight. There is no existential angst on the sleeve of the perpetrator, unless it is to be found in the tone of the particular person singing the song. And interestingly, we also lack a narrational voice that expresses any sort of clear moral commentary. The songs operate in a skeletal framework of meaning—leaving wide canvas space for us to imprint meaning, intent, tone. Without a burden of actual truth or of reportage, the songs become a different sort of news, a kind of truth that transcends time and place and moves further inside of us behind the intellect, indeed beyond our personal experience, to something more elemental.

Jere Wells in the first three parts of this set of five Sundays preparing for Barbara Brown Taylor’s visit, made a couple of references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In essence these ballads take us to a similar place and sift to the surface a similar question—what becomes of us or who do we become when we leave town and head into the woods or down by the river? What happens to us when the parameters of civilized society are absent? And most often we find that the scariest part is not what we find external to us in these spaces but rather what we find inside of us. What is in Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is the same thing that we find in Mr. Hyde or that we find in the perpetrators in these four ballads.

I am particularly interested in a component of several of the ballads, most notably in “Pretty Polly.” You’ll note that in this song the singer, and perhaps thus the audience is essentially cast in each role in the course of the ballad. We inhabit the perpetrator, a knowing narrator, and the victim. In a very narrow space we find ourselves in each role—the innocent, the guilty, and the observer. What we make of this has direct bearing, I believe, on the essence of this series of talks: “Twilight: Our Complicated Relationship with Darkness.” Indeed it is not only complicated but it is impossibly complicated because the relationship exists beyond our grasp in a space that confounds and stymies analysis at every turn.

Perhaps this is where faith comes in as it is even more elemental to that inner-space than is darkness. I mentioned earlier the idea of our soul’s tenebrism. Tenebrism is a particularly strident form of chiaroscuro or contrast between light and dark. I believe we can find in this music evidence of something far within us that only sometimes finds its way to the surface of our lives. I am not thinking simply of the darkness of the perpetrator, but also of the light that contrasts and contains him.

There is a song called “Drifting Too Far From the Shore” that I have always liked. I liked it long before I ever put an ounce of energy into reflecting on it. The sound of it was enough for me. In some ways it is the Sunday morning music on the shore after a Saturday night at sea. To end this morning I would like to share it with this thought: I believe we are both the ones drifting from the shore and the others calling them back to the shore. Our soul’s tenebrism leads us to sea and stands on the shore to call us back–it seeks the woods of “Pretty Polly” and regrets its straying in the pines. The high contrast between the two defines sea and shore, and it defines us—and in this old, beautiful, and weird music you can tap your foot to it.


“Pretty Polly”

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind

Polly, Pretty Polly, would you take me unkind

Let me set beside you and tell you my mind


Well my mind is to marry and never to part

My mind is to marry and never to part

The first time I saw you it wounded my heart


Oh Polly Pretty Polly come go along with me

Polly Pretty Polly come go along with me

Before we get married some pleasures to see


Oh he led her over mountains and valleys so deep

He led her over hills and valleys so deep

Pretty Polly mistrusted and then began to weep


Oh Willie, Little Willie, I’m afraid of your ways

Willie, Little Willie, I’m afraid of your ways

The way you’ve been rambling you’ll lead me astray


Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right

Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right

I dug on your grave the biggest part of last night


Oh she knelt down before him a pleading for her life

She knelt down before him a pleading for her life

Let me be a single girl if I can’t be your wife


Oh Polly, Pretty Polly that never can be

Polly, Pretty Polly that never can be

Your past reputation’s been trouble to me


He opened up her bosom, as white as any snow.

He opened up her bosom, as white as any snow.

He stabbed her through the heart,

and the blood did overflow.


Oh he went down to the jailhouse and what did he say

He went down to the jailhouse and what did he say

I’ve killed Pretty Polly and trying to get away.

One thought on “The Tenebrism of the Soul Sifted to the Surface in Four Ballads

  1. admiral17(RB) January 20, 2015 / 6:57 am

    Sometimes the stars seem to align in a manner that suggests the ancient astrologers actually knew somethings modern science does not. Over the long weekend, well before I read this post, I worked my way back through Dylan’s original recording of “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”. I have long found ballads fascinating for two reasons: one, they tell a story and stories stir the “inner me”; two, as you so eloquently discuss, they force us to rely on the music and the musicians to fill in the unknown portions of the tales. Perhaps Rosemary was actually seeking redemption when she put the pen knife in Big Jim’s back.

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