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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

And then they began like lighnin' and thunder,
And then they began like lightnin'and thunder,
On the green, green grass, with Polly layin' under,
"Oh lay your leg over me, do."

In about nine months, Polly went to weepin'
In about nine months, Polly went to weepin'
And then she remembered that crawlin' and creepin',
"Oh lay your leg over me do."

The structure there is very much like Pretty Polly's and the opening lines are almost identical. Both songs include a knife, both have Polly weeping at some point along the way, and both give her an unwanted pregnancy. The fact that Mrs MM knew her song as Pretty Polly, coupled with the very prominent use of that phrase in its opening lines, suggests the real ballad may already have adopted that name when the parody was produced. If so, no printed copy seems to have survived.

'Who can explain the terror that made us remove all mention of sex from Pretty Polly?'

More reliable evidence emerged in 1917, when the English song collector Cecil Sharp heard an unusual version in North Carolina. Sharp had already expressed some interest in The Gosport Tragedy, saying in 1907 that it was one of the few supernatural folk ballads still popular among the rural singers he interviewed. (27)
Sharp's North Carolina find was titled The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, and sung with a new twist to William's death:

He entered his ship on the salt sea so wide,
And swore by his maker he'd see the other side,
While he was a-sailing in his heart's content,
The ship sprang a leak: to the bottom she went.

While he was a-lying there, all in sad surprise,
He saw Pretty Polly appear before his eyes,
"Oh William, oh William, you've no time to stay,
There's a debt to the devil that you're bound to pay".

William's victim had first been called Polly almost a century before, and retained that name on and off ever since. If you discount the Missouri parody, then Sharp's is the earliest version I've seen to call her "Pretty Polly" in full. Once Molly became Polly on that 1822 Liverpool sheet, the temptation to attach "Pretty" in this way was always going to prove irresistible. The fact that several unconnected folk songs sometimes called themselves Pretty Polly already did not prevent our own ballad being re-titled in her honour. (28)
Song collectors still find the odd American version calling the girl Molly rather than Polly today - another reminder of the song's roots - but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. Less than a decade after Sharp noted down the lyrics above, the song's first commercial discs appeared. By 1927, John Hammond, BF Shelton and Dock Boggs had all released recordings of the song they called Pretty Polly, and all its earlier names simply dropped away.

The first man to put Pretty Polly on disc was John Hammond, who cut it for Gennett Records at a Richmond, Indiana session in April 1925. Gennett stressed his roots as an East Kentucky banjo player by calling the song Purty Polly on its 1927 release.
Hammond's lyrics show that the process of Americanising Pretty Polly still had some way to go. He sets the story in London for a start, and allows himself a leisurely 11 verses to get it told. No trace of the maritime setting remains, but there's still the odd line which retains a flavour of English folk songs, such as his description of Polly "with her rings on her fingers and lily-white hands". Others carry a distinct whiff of American puritanism: "A love of her body has sent her soul to hell".
This last element is characteristic of many American adaptations of British songs, which often erase their source ballads' frank acknowledgement that an unwanted pregnancy caused all the trouble. Hammond comes as close as he dares to suggesting Polly's indiscretion in his fourth verse:

"Come and go Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Come and go Pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married, there's pleasure to see."

In the English ballads, which spell out the nature of that pleasure elsewhere, Willie needs only to tell Polly that he wants them to visit some friends. The much shorter American song has to make each verse work that bit harder, though, and Hammond's coinage is a clever way of nodding towards sex while also allowing him to insist that wasn't what he had in mind at all.
Two other banjo players released their own versions of Pretty Polly in 1927, and both were as careful as Hammond to skirt around this sensitive issue. BF Shelton, another Kentucky native, and Dock Boggs from the next-door state of Virginia, both use the "pleasure to see" verse, but only Shelton gives this additional hint of what Willie and Polly have been up to:

"I courted Pretty Polly one live-long night,
I courted Pretty Polly one live-long night,
And left the next morning before it was light."

All this careful evasion falls a long way short of The Gosport Tragedy's unblinking gaze: "At length with his cunning he did her betray / And to lewd desire he led her away". It takes quite a determined search of Pretty Polly's lyrics to reveal even a hint of that idea in the American song, and for most casual listeners the result is that Polly herself emerges as a rather baffled virgin.
"Who can ever completely explain the cringing terror that made us remove all references to sex in Pretty Polly?" Sparks asks. "Our Polly is a mannequin, and an empty shell. [...] She's too weak to lift her arms in an embrace. Her lips are too slack to kiss. She can only be entered with a knife." Later she adds: "Our Polly seems utterly unaware of sex. She does, however, know a grave when she sees one. Her only sin is recognising her grave, having knowledge of death. In America, this may be sin enough."
The most obvious manifestation of this idea comes in the song's "spade lying by" verse, which is a direct transplant from the English original. Hammond shies clear of that stanza, but replaces it with a suggestion that Willie is somehow testing Polly as they walk through the woods:

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

For Sparks, this is the moment when Polly realises her faith in Willie is unjustified, and it's witnessing this loss of her innocence which finally resolves him to kill her. The switch in Willie's head flips from "madonna" to "whore", and in that instant his virgin Eve is banished from the Garden. "I sometimes wonder if Pretty Polly might have lived if only she had looked at her grave and seen an innocent hole in the ground," Sparks says. "The knowledge that kills her is the knowledge of life and death."
Far from weakening its impact, Pretty Polly's terror of sex makes it a much more mysterious and haunting song than The Gosport Tragedy ever was. "Like the wordless unspeakable parts of our own psyche, murder ballads hold secrets that loom larger the further down they're pushed," Sparks says. "Pretty Polly only gained magic as we whittled her down and wrapped her in veils."