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Pretty Polly: Sources & Footnotes

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Sources & Footnotes
1) Pretty Polly, by Rennie Sparks. Published in The Rose & The Briar, edited by Sean Wilentz & Greil Marcus (WW Norton, 2005). Sparks' essay was one of my two key sources for this piece, and anyone with an interest in the song should be sure to read it.
2) Sleeve notes to People Take Warning (Various artists, Tompkins Square, 2007).
3) The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill, by Katherine Ramsland (
4) No Remorse, by Rachel Aviv (The New Yorker, January 2, 2012).
5) Author interview, Harper Collins website. (
6) Words From the Wind, by Adam J. Pearson (
7) Quoted in A Brief History of Gosport, by Tim Lambert (
8) Pretty Polly's roots in The Gosport Tragedy come as news to many people on both sides of the Atlantic - as Kristin Hersh discovered when she included the American song on her 1998 album, Murder Misery and Then Goodnight. "My English label back then was so confused by this record that they declined to put it out conventionally," she says. "I remember telling them, 'These are your songs. It's not that weird!'"
9) Josh Ritter released a song of his own called Pretty Polly in 1999, which seems to be a response to The Dreadful Ghost. He sings: "Pretty Polly please come down / From your home high above the ground / In the tree dark and forlorn / Where the rope hangs bruised and worn". The girl in The Dreadful Ghost is never named, so perhaps Ritter was inspired by a version of Pretty Polly which incorporates that song's hanging scene. If so, I've never found it.
10) The Gosport Tragedy: Story of a Ballad, by David Fowler. Published in The Southern Folklore Quarterly volume 43, issues 3 & 4, 1979 (University of Florida). The second of my two most important sources, and well worth reading in full. Cecil Sharp House in London has SFQ's bound volumes, and I'm sure many US university libraries have them too.
11) I asked Karen Limper-Herz, the British Library curator who looks after its 18th century printed documents, to clarify the Roxburghe Gosport's conflicting dates for me.
"Both dates are guesses to some extent," she replied. "In a lot of cases, a date of 1750 was suggested by ESTC if the cataloguer was not sure whether an item was printed in the first or second half of the 18th century. The ESTC cataloguer was therefore no more or less sure about the dating than the cataloguer who created the record for GK. On balance, and from typographical evidence, I would go with the dating suggested by ESTC, possibly slightly earlier or later, but round the middle of the 18th century."
The ETSC catalogie was started only in 1976, she added, so it's perfectly possible that only the GK date existed when Fowler researched his own essay. If both he and Limper-Herz are right, then as much as 25 years may have have passed between the killing that inspired The Gosport Tragedy and the Roxburghe sheet itself being printed. There's no reason to assume this is the first Gosport Tragedy sheet of all though - it's simply the earliest that's survived to our own time - and the ballad may have already been in print for a decade or more before Roxburghe's sheet was produced.
12) The Royal Navy had one earlier Bedford, strictly called HMS Bedford Galley, but she was far too small to qualify as a ship of the line. She was built in 1697, converted to a fireship in 1716, and sunk to form a foundation at Sheerness in 1725.
13) Captain's log of The Bedford, 1723-1728. Original held at The National Archives, Kew (item ADM 51/132).
14) As Fowler points out, this implies that Molly - pregnant when killed - had somehow given birth in the after-life. Killing a pregnant woman generally means killing her foetus too, so you can see why a sailor expecting Molly to haunt the ship might envisage her spectral form with a baby in its arms.
15) Weekly Journal, October 15, 1726.
16) Newcastle Courant, November 19, 1726.
17) Hook actually spells the carpenter's surname here as "Bellson", but it's clear he has the same individual in mind. Everyone took their own guess at how any particular surname should be spelt at this time, and I've changed Hook's spelling to "Billson" here just to avoid confusion.
18) Scurvy: The Sailor's Nightmare, by Grant Sebastian Nell (
19) The only US version I know which has Willie raving to death after seeing the ghost appears in a 2001 Mudcat post from Clint Keller. He recalled his grandmother singing Pretty Polly with these lines: "He was taken with fits the very next night / And died in the morning before 'twas daylight / Saying 'Polly, Pretty Polly, over yonder she stands / With rings on the fingers of her lily-white hands'."
20) Other sources claim the oldest surviving gravestones at St Mary's go back as far as 1666. One of the people buried there is Captain GM Bligh, who served on board the Victory at Trafalgar and was related to the Bounty's Captain Bligh.
21) If Cluer really was the man who first put The Gosport Tragedy in print, then he had precious little time to enjoy that triumph. He died in 1728, long before he could have any inkling how popular the ballad would become.
22) This scenario would make the Roxburghe Gosport a little older than Karen Limper-Herz's estimate (above), but only by a few years. It's still well within the British Library's general range of 1720-1750.
23) Fowler's quoting Joseph Ritson's verdict on the folk process here.
24) When George Malcolm Laws surveyed US ballad sheets from around this time, he found 45 examples which recycle The Gosport Tragedy in one form or another. Most of his sample was drawn from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
25) Perhaps the fact that Plymouth plays such a central role in America's foundation myths about the Mayflower meant it was always likely to blot out the less familiar Portsmouth in this US writer's mind.
26) Everything I've read about Cowell's performance of Molly The Betrayed says he delivered it in a comedy cockney accent, which is evident in the verse sheet's spelling of words like "hocean" and "hinnercent". Lines like "It chanced that von day ven her vages vos paid" suggest stage Jewish instead, so perhaps his act included an element of that caricature too.
27) Sharp actually phrased this as "...still popular with country singers", but it was not Nashville's hat acts he had in mind. The song's modern status as a country & western staple now makes his remark look rather prescient.
28) Examples of the other Pretty Pollys include the 17th century's Pretty Polly Oliver and some versions of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. See the box on page 9 for details.
29) Dock Boggs took a slightly tougher line when singing the song live. At concerts, he'd replace the words "At last Pretty Polly she fell asleep" with "He threw her in the river where the water's twenty foot deep".
30) It was The Stanley Brothers' 1950 recording which prompted Mudcat's Steve Latimer to coin a useful new rule of American popular music: "If the woman's alive at the end of the song, it ain't bluegrass".
31) If my own collection of 37 recordings is anything to go by, then Pretty Polly has been shrinking pretty steadily ever since it was first committed to disc. On that sample, the song averaged ten verses during the first third of its history (1925-1954), eight verses during the second third (1955-1983) and just seven-and-a-half verses in the final third (1984-2011).
32) Sleevenotes to Face A Falling World (various artists, Tomkins Square, 2009).
33) Little Toby Walker underlines this point in his own 2003 recording: "He covered her with dirt and he turned to go home / And only the birdies could hear her dying moan".
34) Personal interview via e-mail, January 2012.
35) Roger McGuinn's Folk Den (
36) When George Dunn performed a similar set of lyrics for other song collectors in 1971, he recalled singing the The Cruel Ship's Carpenter during his youth as a Herefordshire hop-picker. "I sung beautiful in the hopyard," he said. "The others joined in. When you came to the chorus, they'd join in. The hopyard was full of singing."
37) This notion also appears in Little Toby Walker's recording: "Willie, oh Willie, I fear for your ways / I fear that your rambling has led you astray."
38) A Folk Song A Day (
39) Pretty Polly's Revenge, by Fred "Butch" Burns (
40) Whackety Whack, Don't Talk Back, by C. Kirk Hutson (Journal of Women's History, volume 8, issue 3, 1996). Published by Binghamton University, New York State.