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Pearl Bryan: chapter four continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Parks' version of the song is just six verses long, but also manages to include mentions of Fort Thomas, Cincinnati, the Carter bloodhounds and the difficulties police had identifying Pearl's body. Unlike the Jealous Lover adaption discussed above, this song is frank about the decapitation. In other ways, though, it sticks quite closely to Cohen's strictures about the stereotyped roles the "murdered girl" template demands. Take this verse, for example, which squeezes Pearl's innocent country roots, the contrasting city corruption which led Jackson to seduce her, and her grieving mother back at home into just 24 words:

Pearl went to Cincinnati,
She had been never been there before,
She was stolen by Scott Jackson,
For to never see Mama no more.

The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads has a much fuller version of this particular Pearl Bryan song, comprising 13 verses against Parks' six. It goes like this:

Young girls, if you'll listen,
A story I'll relate,
That happened near Fort Thomas,
In the old Kentucky state

On January the thirty-first,
The dreadful deed was done,
By Jackson and by Walling;
How cold Pearl's blood did run!

But little did her parents think,
When she left her happy home,
Their darling girl just in her youth,
Would never more return.

How sad it would have been to them,
To have heard Pearl's lonely voice
At midnight in that lonely spot,
Where those two boys rejoiced!

And little did Pearl Bryan think,
When she left home that day,
The grip she carried in her hand,
Would hide her head away.

She thought it was her lover's hand,
She could trust both night and day,
Although it was her lover's hand,
That took her life away.

The driver in the seat is all,
Who tells of Pearl's sad fate,
Of poor Pearl Bryan away from home,
In the old Kentucky state

Of her aged parents we all know well,
What a fortune they would give,
If Pearl could but to them return,
Her natural life to live.

In came Pearl Bryan's sister,
And falling to her knees,
Begging to Scott Jackson,
"My sister's head, O please!"

Scott Jackson he sat stubborn,
And not a word was said,
"I'll meet my sister in heaven,
Where I'll find her missing head."

The jury gave a verdict,
And to their feet they sprung:
"For the crime these boys committed,
They surely must be hung."

Unlike the I adaption above, this song is frank about Pearl's decapitation

The two verses I've left out, which come near the end of the song, are incomplete in the Penguin version, but comprise a plea for mercy from Walling's mother. I've never heard these used in any recording of the song, however, perhaps because - as Cohen remarked in her own research - the killer's parents are generally felt to have no place in a "murdered girl" ballad.
The first verse here, addressing the song specifically to "young ladies" fits my pet theory that songs like these would have been a useful way for mothers to remind their daughters not to believe everything a randy young man might tell them. The warning's reinforced by a couple of optional verses sometimes tacked on to this incarnation of the ballad:

Now all young girls take warning,
For all men are unjust,
It may be your truest lover,
You know not whom to trust.

Pearl Bryan died away from home,
On a dark and lonely spot,
My God, My God, believe me girls,
Don't let this be your lot.

Cohen calls this version of the ballad "Pearl Bryan I", and divides it into two further categories: "Dalhart" and "non-Dalhart". This refers to the country singer Vernon Dalhart, who cut the first record of this song under the name Jep Fuller for Vocalion in 1926. His version, and the branch of the song's history that's followed it ever since, is easily identifiable by the fact that it dates the murder to "late in January" rather than, as the Penguin version does, "January the 31st". The lyrics on Dalhart's record, which otherwise follow the Penguin words quite closely, are credited to John and Rosalie Carson, who often wrote songs for Dalhart at that time.
Vocalion's paperwork is less confident however, entering only a question mark in the column normally reserved for the holder of the lyrics' copyright and noting the tune as that of the old folk song Little Mary Phagan. Whoever finalised the words used on Dalhart's recording, they obviously didn't feel entitled to claim the copyright on them. Cohen's guess is that the Carsons made a few quick changes to an existing broadside's verses about the case, and then bolted on a familiar folk tune that happened to fit.
Before we leave this version of the ballad altogether, it's worth just returning to its habit of depicting Mabel falling to her knees as she begs Jackson to tell her where Pearl's head was dumped. This gives the balladeers a handy rhyme with "please", another word that helps them reinforce Mabel's desperation, but there's precious little evidence that it has any foundation in fact.
The closest the contemporary accounts come to confirming it is Barclay's description of her "almost begging on bended knees". Crim writes about "the sister going down on her knees to him", but produced that account a full 50 years after Pearl's death, by which time his recollection would have been corrupted by many inaccurate tellings of the story - and perhaps by hearing a few of the ballads as well.
Most printed accounts of Pearl's tale take it as read that Mabel must have knelt at Jackson's feet, and even where they fudge that issue in the text, she's always pictured that way in the accompanying illustrations. It's now become impossible to imagine her in any other position as this scene plays out, and perhaps that's because it's just too compelling an image for any singer, writer or artist to resist. Barclay gave us just enough of a hint to steer everyone in that direction, his careful qualifier was soon forgotten, and poor old Mabel's been trapped on her knees ever since.