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Pretty Polly: continued

 
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Murder Ballads
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All this suggests that the decades of folk wisdom that went into distilling Pretty Polly managed to intuit some truths about violence it would take scientists another 100 years to codify. For Rennie Sparks, it's still Willie's dark suspicions about women which link him so closely to the monsters of our own day.
"Who is this snickering psycho?" she asks. "He's the man in the black raincoat who tried to lure me into his car with a lollipop when I was six years old. He's Ted Bundy with a fake cast on his arm, asking women to help him load a pile of books into the back of a van. He's Ed Gein, who slaughtered and skinned the women who wounded his heart then danced round his yard wearing their bloody faces for a mask. How pretty he must have felt, blood-soaked and screaming in the moonlight."
No doubt he did - and perhaps that's why some versions of Pretty Polly draw our attention as much to the killer's good looks as to Polly's own. Before Willie was any of the people Sparks mentions though, he was a humble ship's carpenter in the English town of Gosport. And that's where we'll meet him next.


Every singer gives their own little twist to Pretty Polly's lyrics, choosing whichever verses they prefer from the 30-odd available and tweaking the words of its key lines to suit their particular interpretation.
I have 37 recordings of the song in my own collection, ranging from the epic 13 verses used by BF Shelton in 1927 to the bare-bones three verses Sarah Elizabeth selected 80 years later. There are a handful of key incidents and images which almost everyone includes, however, and an archetypal version might look like this:

"Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Polly, Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married, some pleasure to see."

He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
He led her over hills and valleys so deep,
Polly mistrusted, and she began to weep.

"Oh Willie, dear Willie, I'm feared of your ways,
Willie, dear Willie, I'm feared of your ways,
I'm feared that you'll lead my poor body astray."

She went a little further and what did she spy?
She went a little further and what did she spy?
A newly-dug grave with a spade lying by.

"Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, you've guessed about right,
Polly, Pretty Polly, you've guessed about right,
I dug on your grave the best part of last night."

He stabbed her in the breast and her heart's blood did flow,
He stabbed her in the breast and her heart's blood did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
Leaving no-one behind but the wild birds to mourn.

William persists, eventually talking Molly into a night of what the ballad calls 'lewd desire'

This bleak little tale has its roots in the English town of Gosport in Hampshire. Gosport lies on the south coast of England, just three miles west of Portsmouth, a city that's been the home of Britain's Royal Navy since 1527. Gosport has always existed mostly to serve the Navy's needs, supplying that market with meat, bread, timber, rope, beer, iron tools and labour. "Gosport can claim little that is attractive," one 18th century visitor wrote. "The town has the narrowness and slander of a small country town without its rural simplicity and with a full share of the vice of Portsmouth, polluted by the fortunes of sailors and the extravagances of harlots. To these evils are added the petty pride and sectarian bigotry of a fortified town." (7)
Sailors' tales were a fertile source of material for the printed ballad sheets sold throughout Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Pretty Polly grew from one of the hardiest examples. Its full title is The Gosport Tragedy or The Perjured Ship-Carpenter.
The oldest copy we have of this song is part of the British Library's Roxburghe Collection, a series of scrapbooks pulling together about 1,500 ballad sheets printed between 1567 and 1790. I'm going to call this copy the Roxburghe Gosport to distinguish it from the many later sheets that followed, and the British Library believes it was printed in the first half of the 18th Century.
The sheet is about A3 size in our terms, printed at a shop in London's Bow Churchyard, and illustrated with a generic woodcut of six people in a row-boat. It takes 34 verses to tell its story - 136 lines in all - separating each stanza from the next with a simple paragraph indent to cram everything in. What happens is this:
A young ship's carpenter called William meets a bright, beautiful Gosport girl named Molly and asks her to marry him. She's reluctant at first, saying she's too young to wed, that she fears William will soon tire of her, and that his job means he'd spend half his time at sea anyway. Bubbling beneath all this is Molly's clear suspicion that William's proposed only because he wants to get into her pants and that, once he's achieved this objective, all his promises of marriage will be forgotten. "Young men are so fickle, I see very plain," she reminds him. "If a maid is not coy, they will her disdain."
William persists for the next four verses, and eventually talks Molly into a night of what the ballad calls "lewd desire". She discovers she's pregnant in the very next line, and reminds William of his promise to marry her. By this time, the king is preparing Portsmouth's fleet to depart on a war mission, but William assures Molly he'll make good on his vow before the Bedford, his own ship, sets sail.

So, with kind embraces, he parted that night,
She went to meet him in the morning light,
He said: "Dear charmer, thou must go with me,
Before we are wedded, a friend to see."

He led her through valleys and groves so deep,
At length, this maiden began for to weep,
Saying: "William, I fancy thou leads't me astray,
On purpose my innocent life to betray."

He said: "That is true, and none can you save,
For I all this night have been digging a grave",
Poor innocent soul, when she heard him say so,
Her eyes like a fountain began for to flow.

"Oh perjur'd creature, the worst of all men,
Heavens reward thee when I'm dead and gone,
Oh pity the infant and spare my life,
Let me go distress'd if I'm not thy wife."

Her hands white as lilies, in sorrow she wrung,
Beseeching for mercy, saying: "What have I done,
To you, my dear William? What makes you severe?
For to murder one that loves you so dear?"

He said: "There's no time disputing to stand",
And, instantly taking the knife in his hand,
He pierced her body till the blood it did flow,
Then into the grave her body did throw.

He covered her body, then home he did run,
Leaving none but birds her death to mourn,
On board the Bedford, he enter'd straightway,
Which lay at Portsmouth out-bound for the sea.


Pretty perfect: continued

Pretty Polly, by Judy Collins (1968). Collins' voice is every bit as lovely and powerful as Denny's. She takes the song much more slowly, however, lingering over its every development with a haunting sense of regret.
    Stephen Stills and James Burton share guitar duties, edging the track subtly towards rock territory. It's very much a full-band treatment, so folkaphobics will find nothing to scare them off here. Available on: Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (Elektra, 1990).

Pretty Polly, by The Byrds (1968). Pretty Polly's never been a chart hit, but if The Byrds had released this version as a single, it surely would have been. Packed with the band's trademark chiming guitars, it's a gloriously pretty record.
    Like The Kingston Trio's Tom Dooley or Sam Cooke's Frankie & Johnny, McGuinn & Co pull off the tricky task of including all the gore without offending even the most pious listener. Available on: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Sony, 1997).

Pretty Polly, by The Iron Mountain String Band (1975). Using rare lyrics uncovered during the band's own Virginia field research, this is my favourite of the song's hardcore traditional recordings.
    Eric Davidson's quick, snaky banjo is the highlight, aided by reedy mountain vocals and what sounds like someone slapping their legs to serve as percussion. You can almost picture a spitoon set next to the mike as they recorded it - which is just as it should be. Available on: Walkin' In The Parlor (Folkways, 2009).

The Death of Polly, by Mick Harris and Martyn Bates (1994). Hailing from Napalm Death and Eyeless in Gaza respectively, Harris & Bates offer one of the song's most original readings yet.
    Dotting eight of its standard verses over a generous 14 minutes, they fill the rest of their time with doomy atmospherics and wordless groans. Something of an acquired taste, perhaps, but true to the song's spirit and an intriguing glimpse into Willie's mental landscape as he leads Polly into the woods. Available on: Murder Ballads: The Complete Collection (Invisible, 1998).

Pretty Polly, by Kristin Hersh (1998). Hersh's version, using just her voice and her own acoustic guitar accompaniment, is an object lesson in the virtues of simplicity. Cutting all but the song's five most crucial verses, she allows nothing to distract attention from the tale itself.
    The sweet, slightly breathy vocals give us a matter-of-fact account of Polly's fate, with the guitar stepping carefully back as each line is sung. It's only when a verse has safely concluded that Hersh allows herself a decorative little pattern on the strings to ensure its content sinks in. Available on Murder Misery and Then Goodnight (4AD, 1998).

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