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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

The Theodore Dreiser novel Lomax mentions, published in 1925, fictionalises a notorious murder case of 19 years earlier. In the real case, Chester Gillette drowned Grace Brown, his pregnant girlfriend, in a New York State lake because she kept pressing him to marry her. He was executed in the electric chair for this crime, and Dreiser recycled the tale as fiction a few years later. His novel's been filmed many times since, most notably as 1951's A Place In The Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor, and never quite lost its place in America's imagination.
That Lomax compilation introduced a whole new generation of musicians to Pretty Polly, including Jake Speed, who heads a Cincinnati band called The Freddies. "I learned Pretty Polly when I was about 22, just figuring out everything about folk music," Speed told me. "I had just come across murder ballads and I learned the tunes so I could flood myself with their legacy.
"I put Pretty Polly on the first album to show people the tradition my original music was attempting to emerge from - the dark, ballad-based storytelling tradition. There's a desperation to the song that I always liked. Maybe the killer in the song is just so pathetic and desperate that I wanted to feel a little of that." (34)
Sid Griffin of The Coal Porters, a London bluegrass combo, admits to taking this approach a little too far when recording Pretty Polly for their 2010 album Durango. Griffin shares vocals on the song with the band's Carly Frey, parcelling out the two roles just as you'd expect.
"In the studio in Colorado, I was singing my part of Pretty Polly in character - rather a Stanislavski method," Griffin told me. "I guess I went a bit over the top, as I heard the producer Ed Stasium come over the talkback to me with: 'Hey Sidney, could you dial it back a little? Sounds like a meeting of the Durango Amateur Dramatic Society!' So I sang it from then on with a bit more restraint." (34)

Pretty Polly's American career moved into overdrive with the folk revival of the 1960s, adding the first really famous names to her list of biographers and reaching a global audience for the first time as a result. Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, The Byrds and Judy Collins would all perform the song before the 1960s were out, and only Bob failed to find it a place on one of his albums.

Bob Dylan included Pretty Polly in his early New York sets, and later borrowed its tune

Dylan did include Pretty Polly in his early New York sets, though, and also borrowed its melody for his own 1962 composition The Ballad of Hollis Brown. His hero Woody Guthrie had already used the tune to fuel his own Pastures of Plenty in 1941, so we know it was well-established in America's national folk canon by then. Peggy Seeger and Tom Paley teamed up for their own recording of Pretty Polly itself in 1964, followed by both The Byrds and Judy Collins four years later.
Perhaps because of Dylan's interest, the song soon started to make itself felt on this side of the Atlantic too. The Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch included it in his set at a 1963 Glasgow folk club gig which later surfaced on a live album, and Sandy Denny cut a studio version in 1967. Sweeney's Men, a Dublin band, and Leicestershire's Davy Graham both put mournful versions of the song on their 1969 albums.
Of all these artists, none outshine Denny and Collins. Both women start the story gently but build to full-throated anger and pain as Polly meets her death. Although both versions include snatches of direct narration from Willie and Polly themselves, the singers come across as quoting these characters rather than choosing to inhabit either one. Instead of speaking directly for Polly's killer in the final verse - a hard trick for any female singer to pull off - Collins consigns Willie to hell with these words:

A debt to the devil Willie must pay,
A debt to the devil Willie must pay,
For killing Pretty Polly and running away.

The fact that it's a woman singing these lines makes it easy to read a certain grim satisfaction into their account of Willie's fate.
Crispin Gray discovered Pretty Polly in the Collins recording, introducing it to singer Katie Jane Garside when they put their own band, Queenadreena, together in 1999. "I've heard recordings of the song by women that sound remarkably close to male versions in terms of attitude," he told me. "But not so with the Judy Collins version or Katie Jane's rendition, which I think are both very female. I don't mean just because they're obviously female voices. As the song portrays violence done to a woman by a man, I'm not sure a man could ever approach or understand it in quite the same way.
"That's not to say Judy Collins and Katie Jane sound the same either, because they don't. To my ears, Judy Collins' delivery is pure and wistful while Katie Jane, particularly in our later live versions, is more wild, unhinged and traumatised - although I think they both manage to inject a certain ghostliness." (34)
Kristin Hersh of the rock band Throwing Muses has recorded Pretty Polly too, so I asked her to what extent a female performer must channel Polly herself as the song progresses. "I find I can avoid an empathy stomach ache if I divorce myself from the meaning of the words when I sing it," she replied. "I guess it's more like reporting, which would bring it into the realm of myth. That's nice. Myth is important."
The Byrds reclaimed Pretty Polly from the folk singers who'd made it their own when they included it on the band's classic 1968 country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Garlanded with the outfit's trademark chiming guitars, this was one of the first male versions to completely avoid calling the killer "I". Roger McGuinn quotes Willie and Polly both, just as Denny and Collins had done, and imports Collins' third-person damnation stanza verbatim, but never quite steps into the killer's head.
The result is less sinister than many earlier versions, but it's a gloriously pretty record, and that's made it an enduring template for the song. "Roger McGuinn is a friend of mine, and he was here two or three Januarys ago to perform at The Barbican for a folk series they had with Judy Collins, Eric Anderson and so on," Griffin told me. "The Coal Porters played Pretty Polly, and we really did well.
"Backstage, I was speaking to Roger about The Byrds cutting Pretty Polly for Sweetheart of the Rodeo in 1968 and how I loved that version - actually, both versions, as they did it totally acoustically and then with electric 12-string guitar. Roger reminded me that he also cut Pretty Polly for his solo LP Cardiff Rose in 1976, and then 30 years after that for his Folk Den site on-line. So he's cut the song four times!
"I like The Byrds' unreleased version from Sweetheart of the Rodeo the best, though of course I never heard it till that CD was reissued in 2003 with extra tracks from the sessions. McGuinn's electric 12-string really grooves on it and it sounds like nothing I've ever heard before."
Folk Den adds a few of McGuinn's own thoughts. "I'd known the song since my days at the Old Town School of Folk Music [in Chicago] and had always loved the modal tuning on the banjo and guitar in spite of the morbid lyrics," he says. "This is a good example of a song used for spreading the news of the day, way back before radio, television or the internet." (35)
Griffin made a similar point when I asked him what it was about the song that made him want to add it to The Coal Porters' repertoire. "The fact that it is a modal sound, a true mountain song based on one chord," he replied. "Only Bo Diddley did that kind of thing regularly in the rock and roll world. Not even any of the country rockers did one-chord, purely modal stuff to my knowledge."
While Pretty Polly danced in the 1960s' spotlight, it was left to amateur musicians to keep her English source songs alive. Song collectors found The Cruel Ship's Carpenter still being sung in Canada as late as 1962, and nabbed one of our ballad's missing links with a 1963 rendition telling Polly's modern story under her old name. Fran Majors, the singer who performed this last song for collectors in Wichita, Kansas, called it Molly Pretty Molly.

Not proven: The case for John Billson's defence

There's no question that David Fowler's research on The Gosport Tragedy is impressive.
    He's shown conclusively that The Bedford really did have a Charles Stewart on board shortly before the ballad was produced, that Stewart served on the ship while it was moored at Portsmouth, that the ship was then preparing to sail for action, and that its carpenter's name was John Billson.
    Any one of those facts in isolation could be dismissed as a mere coincidence, but proving they all came together like this adds huge support to Fowler's account. The trouble is, I suspect they've also led him to convict the wrong man.
    I say this because of two nagging doubts, the first of which concerns Billson's age. Glance through those Gosport Tragedy lyrics again, and ask yourself how old you imagine the song's protagonist to be.
    He's a man who's very keen to sleep with Molly, but absolutely terrified at the prospect of having to marry her. Fatherhood is either a prospect that doesn't interest him at all, or one which he's content to postpone for a good few years yet. Faced with the danger of being forced into family life when he doesn't want it, his response is to kill the girl and his own unborn child too.
    To me, that paints the picture of a young man, governed far more by his animal impulses than by any mature deliberation. His main concern in life is to have plenty of fun right now, and to avoid responsibility for as long as he can. I'd guess he's in his late teens or early twenties - perhaps 30 at most.
    Billson was far older. When I sketched out Fowler's research on The Gosport Tragedy for the Admiralty's Jennifer Wraight, she consulted some records of her own. "I have checked on John Billson, master carpenter, and his first appointment as such was 1702," she told me next day. "He was clearly not a young man, as the murderer in the ballad is implied to be."
    When Wraight checked a database covering Nelson's fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, she found that the youngest master carpenter whose age is given there was 25, and that most were considerably older. Even if Billson was as young as 20 when he qualified as a master carpenter, he'd have been in his mid-forties when The Gosport Tragedy's events played out, and the man the ballad depicts sounds a good 20 years younger than that.
    Next, we come to the fact that the Roxburghe Gosport calls William a "ship-carpenter' in its first verse, but a "carpenter's mate" when it describes him fleeing after the murder. The relevant lines span two different verses but, taken together, they read: "On board the Bedford he entered straightway / Which lay at Portsmouth out-bound for the sea / For carpenter's mate he was entered we hear / Fitted for his voyage, away he did steer".
    This discrepancy persists on various Gosport Tragedy sheets well into the 19th century, and in folk music versions of the song long after that. Wiggy Smith, a Gloucestershire singer recorded by song collectors in 1966, called his own version The Ship Carpenter's Mate, and performed it with these lines: "And just to make certain he went straightaway / For to 'list for some soldier, some ship carpenter's mate".
    All this makes me wonder if the real killer whose exploits inspired The Gosport Tragedy was not Billson, but one of the eight to twelve junior carpenters he had working for him on board.

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