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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Three years later, Gwilym Davies and Pete Shepheard found a Gloucestershire verion called The Ship Carpenter's Mate. Wiggy Smith and Denny, his uncle, both performed their own take on the song, and each featured some unique lines. Wiggy, for example, has William's father pressing so much drink on him that you have to wonder if both the walk in the woods and the murder were originally Daddy's idea:

He drank and he drank till he drank all his store,
"Dear Father, dear Father, I can't drink no more". (36)

In Denny Smith's version, I particularly like the girl's plea to her killer just after the stabbing, and his almost tender response:

"Barbarous is Billy, don't pierce me no more",
And he covered her over, so safe and secure.

London's Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, has field recordings of The Gosport Tragedy from as far apart as Northern Ireland and Aberdeen. In 1969, on the island of Orkney, Ethel Findlater sang all nine minutes of it for the School of Scottish Studies' Alan Bruford. Rather sweetly, Ethel's version has Molly worrying as much about William's soul as her own:

"And don't take my life, lest my soul you betray,
And you to perdition would be hurried away".

The valleys here are dry rather than deep, suggesting all compassion has been left behind

Once in a while, the best of these amateur efforts made their way on to disc. One example was Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's field recording of a fisherman called Sam Larner singing what he called The Ghost Song. This turned out to be yet another name for of The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, and Larner's recording was released on a 1961 Folkways album which later inspired both Peter Bellamy and Jon Boden to cover it professionally.
Love and Murder scored a commercial release too, thanks to Jon Raven cutting it for his 1968 album with The Halliard. The following year's Comin' Round the Mountain compilation included a rare Kentucky version of Pretty Polly by a singer called Paul Wiley. His lyrics give a conventional American reading till we get to Willie's escape, then suddenly we're flipped into the world of The Gosport Tragedy:

He caught a ship a-sailing down by the seaside,
He caught a ship a-sailing down by the seaside,
He said to the captain he wanted to see the other side.

He sailed upon the ocean, for many days they went,
He sailed upon the ocean, for many days they went,
Till the ship struck an iceberg: to the bottom she went.

This seems to be related to the 1917 version of The Cruel Ship's Carpenter which Cecil Sharp found in North Carolina. My guess is that the iceberg reference was added to give a topical flavour when the Titanic sank in 1912. "The unique ending of this version of Pretty Polly is the way Paul says he always used to hear it," the album's sleeve notes say.
The Iron Mountain String Band unveiled another unexpected twist to the lyrics with their 1975 album Walkin' In The Parlor. The band had been making field recordings in Virginia's Grayson and Carroll counties ever since 1956, and the Pretty Polly lyrics they found there gave almost every verse a new slant:

Oh it's Polly, Pretty Polly, yonder she stands,
Oh Pretty Polly, yonder she stands,
With a ring on her finger, her lily-white hands.

"Well, a ring on her finger shining like gold,
A ring on her finger shining like gold,
And I'm going to have Pretty Polly before she gets too old".

Rode her over hills and valleys so dry,
He rode her over hills and valleys so dry,
And Polly looked up and she begin to cry.

"Oh Willie, oh Willie, I'm 'fraid of your ways,
Willie, oh Willie, I'm 'fraid of your ways,
The way you been angry you make me afraid".

"Oh Polly, Oh Polly, your guess is 'bout right,
Oh Pretty Polly, your guess is 'bout right,
I'm digging your grave the best part of last night".

He opened her bosom as white as the snow,
He opened her bosom as white as the snow,
Stabbed her through her heart and her blood it did flow.

Then he jumped on his stallion, rode away with great speed,
He jumped on his stallion, rode away with great speed,
"Farewell, Pretty Polly, from your bondage I'm free".

Now Willie, oh Willie, a debt he must pay,
Willie, oh Willie, a debt he must pay,
For killing Pretty Polly and running away.

There's so much in this version that we've seen nowhere else. Making Polly's ring singular rather than plural, and specifying that it's made of gold, suggests a wedding band - although perhaps one that exists only as a dire prospect in Willie's mind. It's sex that Willie's interested in not marriage, and he states that desire in unusually direct terms.
The valleys he takes Polly through here are dry rather than deep, suggesting they're passing into an arid region where all thoughts of compassion are left behind. It's not only the realisation that Willie has been lying to her that makes Polly afraid, but his outright anger towards her. Has he been shouting at her? Screaming in her face?
After the murder, it's not merely a horse Willie escapes on but a stallion, symbolising the renewed potency of a young man no longer facing the prison of marriage and family life. No wonder he cries out with such celebration as he rides away: "From your bondage I'm free!"
This version's final stanza appears in many other other recordings too, and it's one which Sparks doesn't much like. "It always seems like the nervous chatter of a singer uncomfortable with the outcome of his own song," she says.
Tagged on to such a merciless account, the Iron Mountain String Band's ending certainly runs that risk, but who could blame the song's original composers for demading a little spiritual justice when crimes like Willie's struck so close to home? "Such acts were not rare in the remote and sometimes lawless mountains," the album's sleeve notes remind us. "They were frequent topics of conversation as well as ballads".

Not proven: continued

Billson was only one of about 40 men who died through illness on board the Bedford during that Baltic expedition. If any of the others happened to be in the carpenter's gang below him, then their death would fit the ballad's account as neatly as his own.
    Probably only one or two men in that gang carried the formal title of carpenter's mate - the rest being known simply as "carpenter's crew" - but any of them could have been casually described that way. Chances are, they would have been a good deal younger than Billson too, as Wraight's Trafalgar figures demonstrate.
    "Of the 40 carpenter's mates [listed at Trafalgar], the youngest is 21," she told me. "And the same is true of of the 216 men listed as carpenter's crew."
    I can quite see why Cluer - or any other balladeer - might amend a real job description of "ship carpenter's mate" to "ship's carpenter" when writing his verses. It's a small enough change to convince even the most conscientious writer he's not distorting the essential facts, and gives him a phrase to play with that's shorter, punchier and easier to rhyme than the original.
    All these factors become more important than ever in the ballad's opening verse, and that's exactly where the Roxburghe Gosport uses "ship's carpenter" most prominently. The fact that a "ship carpenter's mate" slips through instead right down in verse 19 is evidence only that our scribe was by then getting tired or lazy.
    Applying the same logic in the opposite direction is far harder to do. Why would you deliberately make the killer's real job title longer, more cumbersome and less forceful by adding the word "mate" for no good reason?
    The only possible justification I can think of for that would be a situation where "mate" was needed to rhyme with some absolutely crucial word you couldn't accommodate in any other way. But, as the examples above show, that simply isn't the case here.
    With these doubts in mind, I went out to the UK's National Archive at Kew myself to examine the same muster books and pay books Fowler had studied there 30 years ago. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that it's only a handful of the ship's most senior or specialist crew who have a job title listed alongside their name in the Bedford's records.
    Billson's identified there as the ship's carpenter, of course, alongside Edmund Hook as the Bedford's commander and James Bruce as ship's master. The cook, surgeon, clerk, coxon and boatswain are all identified by name too, but the over 400 men remaining get just "Ab" or "Ord" noted against their names to indicate they're either an able or an ordinary seaman.
    Every member of Billson's carpentry gang must surely appear somewhere in that undifferentiated mass but, with no chance of plucking out their names, we hit a dead end.
    Even so, I think it's only fair to consider Billson innocent until proven guilty. Any competent defence lawyer, would be able to convince a jury that the questions above are enough to introduce a reasonable doubt, and therefore make any murder conviction against him impossible.
    Taken as a whole, Fowler's account remains a very convincing one, and I think he's right to finger the Bedford in 1726. But hanging John Billson as the specific individual behind the murder would be a step too far.