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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

When it all goes wrong and Molly's begging for her life, it's not her the Deming Gosport describes as "so comely and fair", but her assassin. This idea appears again in a 1957 recording of Pretty Polly by the Kentucky banjo player Pete Steele, which Sparks singles out in her 2005 essay on the song. "He calls Pretty Polly's murderer 'Pretty Willy'," she writes. "They are both beautiful - the killer and the killed."
The Deming Gosport's re-imagining of William's confrontation on board ship is particularly striking, swapping the English ballad's somewhat stilted language for a far more conversational tone. Stewart reports his own ghost sighting to the captain, and then:

The captain soon summoned the jovial ship's crew,
And said "My brave fellows, I fear some of you,
Have murdered some damsel 'ere you came away,
Whose injured ghost haunts you now on the sea.

"Whoever you be, if the truth you deny,
When found out, you'll be hung on the yard-arm so high,
But he who confesses, his life we'll not take,
But leave him upon the first island we make".

Then William immediately fell on his knees,
The blood in his veins quick with horror did freeze,
He cried "Cruel murder! Oh, what have I done?
God help me, I fear my poor soul is undone."

The traditional verses resume at this point, explaining that William's the only one glimpsing the ghost this time, describing his lonely death and getting Molly's remains properly interred at Gosport in just 12 swift lines.

After a century in print, The Gosport Tragedy was so familiar it produced a music hall parody

By 1850, after a century or more in print, The Gosport Tragedy was familiar enough to make it worth parodying in London's music halls. A version called Molly The Betrayed or The Fog Bound Vessel was produced for the comic singer Sam Cowell. The ballad shops quickly printed up sheets using Cowell's lyrics, hoping to capitalise on the popularity of his performance, and by 1855 it had some official sheet music too.
Cowell had begun his stage career as a child, touring America in various Shakespeare plays with his actor father. Sometimes, he would perform 'coon' songs front of curtain to keep the audience entertained while scenery was being changed behind him. Returning to England in about 1840, and still just 20 years old, he decided there was more money in this burlesque side of his act and ditched the Bard to make room for more comic songs.
"By 1850, he had abandoned the legitimate stage entirely in favour of the songs and supper rooms of the West End," says The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. "An ugly little man with a lugubrious expression, he specialised in cockney song-and-patter acts."
And that's exactly what Molly The Betrayed is. Spelling out its words phonetically in an attempt to mimic Cowell's bizarre stage accent, the parody tells the same core story as The Gosport Tragedy but mixes its narrative passages with a string of silly jokes. Its targets include the ballad sheets' sometimes rather strained rhymes, their reliance on highly melodramatic plots and the conventions of rural folk songs at the time. (26)
This last element suggests audiences in 1850 were just as likely to have encountered the original tale in its folk song form as they were to have found it on a printed ballad. Certainly, Molly The Betrayed would have meant nothing to anyone who didn't already know the original song in one form or another, which testifies again how popular it had become.
What emerges from all this is something very like the comic monologues Stanley Holloway made famous in the 1930s. A few extracts will give you its flavour:

In a kitchen in Portsmouth, a fair maid did dwell,
For grammar and grace none could her excel,
Young William, he courted her to be his dear,
And he by his trade was a ship's carpen – tier.

Singing doodle, doodle chop, chum, chow choral li la.

Now it chanced that von day, ven her vages vos paid,
Young Villiam valked vith her and thus to her said,
"More lovely are you than the ships on the sea",
Then she hugged him and laughed, and said"Fiddle-de-dee".


Then up came the captain with "Unfurl every sail",
He guv'd his command, but to no avail,
A mist on the hocean arose all around,
And no vay to move this fine ship could be found.


Then he calls up his men with a shout and a whoop,
And he orders young Villiam to stand on the poop,
"There's summat not right," he says, "'mongst this here crew,
And blowed if I don't think, young Villiam, it's you".

Then Villiam turned vite and then red and then green,
Vile Molly's pale ghost, at his side it was seen,
Her bosom vas vite, the blood it vas red,
She spoke not but vanished, and that's all she said.

This version added a fifth title to the song's growing collection. Already, it was variously known as The Gosport Tragedy, The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, Love and Murder and Polly's Love, but now Molly The Betrayed joined the list as well. The first evidence we have of it taking the name we know today comes in another parody, which seems to have been current in the 1890s.
That's when a woman identified only as Mrs MM says she learned the song she performed for collectors at her Missouri home in August 1938. She called this song Pretty Polly, and its four verses form a bawdy parody of our own ballad:

"Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, oh won't you come to me,
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, oh won't you come to me,"
"Oh no, my young man, I'm afraid you'll undo me,
Oh lay your leg over me do."

Her drawers they was tied and he couldn't undo 'em,
Her drawers they was tied, and he couldn't undo 'em,
She snorted and cried "Just take your knife to 'em,
Oh lay your leg over me, do."

Re-name that tune: Polly's five unrelated sisters

Untangling Pretty Polly's family history begins with discarding the many old folk songs with a similar title but a completely different plot. Here's a few examples:

Pretty Polly Oliver (17th century). A girl dresses up as a man so she can follow her soldier boyfriend to town (or sometimes to war).
    He befriends this young "chap" and gives him lodging for the night. When Polly reveals herself, the soldier is so impressed with her moxie that he marries her. Blackadder and "Bob" enjoyed a very similar affair in the Elizabethan series.
    Pretty Polly Oliver has been recorded by Ollie Gilbert, Jody Stecher and Emily Portman.

The Ship's Carpenter (c1737) Jane Reynolds is engaged to James Harris, who gets press-ganged before they can marry. Three years later, he's reported dead, so Jane weds a ship's carpenter instead.
    She stays with the carpenter for four years (making a mystical seven years in all), and bears him at least one child. Then the spirit of James Harris returns to claim her, and the couple sail off on a spectral ship.
    One of Pretty Polly's ancestors is The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, but this song is not related to either.

The Cruel Ship's Captain (c1800) A workhouse lad is forced to serve as cabin boy on board a Greenland whaling ship. He displeases the captain, who lashes him to the mast through a freezing night and then kills him next morning rather than endure the boy's pitiful cries.
    This song was based on the real case of the Loyal Briton's Captain Mills, who killed cabin boy Thomas Brown by striking him over the head with a handspike in 1798. Mills was brought back to England and jailed for the crime.
    Whalers adopted this song as their own, adding several inventively sadistic verses to prolong the cabin boy's pain. AL Lloyd recorded it in 1967, and his record's sleevenotes confused matters further by wrongly calling it The Cruel Ship's Carpenter.

Pretty Polly (c. 1850) I've never been able to find this song, but it's mentioned in both JB Cox's Traditional Ballads, Mainly From West Virginia and C. Kirk Hutson's 1996 essay Whackety Whack, Don't Talk Back.
    Cox links it to a Buck Creek, Kentucky, murder of the early 19th century. "One Polly Aldridge was murdered by William Chapman, who was convicted and executed in Martin Co, KY," he writes. "This ballad was being sung about the killing c. 1850". Maybe so, but it seems to bear no relation to the Pretty Polly we know today.
    Hutson mentions a copy of the Chapman/Aldridge song which "described how Chapman viciously cut open her abdomen, filled the empty cavity with rocks, and tossed the weighted corpse in Sug River". Those elements appear in no other version that I know. (40)
    Given the clear proof that our own Pretty Polly has much older roots, I think the Chapman/Aldridge tale is better viewed as an entirely separate song.

Pretty Polly (1920) Olive Flora Bryson's name for a very old English ballad called Lady Isabel and The Elf Knight, which she performed for song collectors in Virginia.
    Lady Isabel is tempted from her home by an evil knight, who tries to kill her. She kills him instead, often by magical means.
    When Isabel returns home, her pet parrot (presumably the Polly of Bryson's title) agrees not to wake her father, and she rewards it with a golden cage.
    Lady Isabel has been recorded as The Elf Knight by Steeleye Span (1996) and as The Outlandish Knight by Bellowhead (2006).