This song, about a lover who murders his girlfriend because she won't marry him, was written sometime in the 1800s. The first recorded version of it was the August 12, 1927 version by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers.
Another song called "Pretty Polly," which dates to about the same time, is rumored to be, in fact, the same song. The storyline is similar, and the protagonist's name is the same: Willie.
In addition to Joan Baez, artists including Johnny Cash, Olivia Newton-John, Pete Seeger, and the Carter Family have recorded this song, each with a slightly different twist to the traditional lyrics. The version by the Blue Sky Boys was featured in the 1973 Ryan O'Neal movie Paper Moon.
WAMU-PBS, a radio series of bluegrass music, uses this song as its theme song.
Olivia Newton-John recorded her version in 1971. Released as a single, it peaked at #6 in the UK, #94 in the US and topped the chart in her home country of Australia.
Dolly Parton recorded the song for her 2014 Blue Smoke album. She told Get Out! magazine: "All of my life I've been singing that song, and it was a folk ballad. I just always liked it, and it was such a man's song about a guy who killed his girlfriend. I decided that I was going to write a part like I was a reporter or a writer, who would be seeing it from that point of view. It makes it easier for a woman to sing it."