> Folk Music > Songs > Polly Oliver

‘Name, lad?’ he said.
‘Oliver, sir. Oliver Perks,’ said Polly.
‘Seventeen come Sunday, sir.’
Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment

Polly Oliver

[ Roud 367 ; Master title: Polly Oliver ; Laws N14 ; Henry H166 ; Ballad Index LN14 ; Bodleian Roud 367 ; GlosTrad Roud 367 ; Wiltshire 427 ; Mudcat 20034 ; trad.]

John Holloway, Joan Black: Later English Broadside Ballads Alan Helsdon: Vaughan Williams in Norfolk Volume 2 Gale Huntington: Sam Henry's Songs of the People Frank Kidson: Traditional Tunes William Henry Long: A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect Frank Purslow: The Foggy Dew James Reeves: The Everlasting Circle Steve Roud, Julia Bishop: The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Mary and Nigel Hudleston: Songs of the Ridings

George Dunn sang an incomplete version of Polly Oliver on 5 June 1971 to Roy Palmer. This recording was included in 2002 on Dunn's Musical Traditions anthology Chainmaker. Roy Palmer and Rod Stradling commented in the album's booklet:

George Dunn was chagrined at not fully remembering this, “one of Ferther's owd uns”, and it was remiss of me not to have tried him on another occasion.

The song, which may date from the wars with France of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was widely popular, to judge by the large number of broadside printings such as this. By the first half of the twentieth century it seems to have been better known in the American oral tradition than in the English, and George Dunn's version represents a rare survival. Certainly, it appears to be the only sound recording—though Ginette Dunn heard, and may have recorded, Ruby Ling singing it in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in the late-seventies.

Emily Portman and Lauren McCormick sang the English song Polly Oliver, and Jody Stecher sang its American variant Pretty Polly Oliver, in 2005 on the Fellside anthology Song Links 2—A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants. Paul Adams commented in the liner notes:

Polly Oliver is a song whose popularity endures. Sometimes called The Maid's Resolution to Follow Her Love, this story of the loyal girl who dresses as a soldier in order to find and win her true love despite her parent's disapproval gains universal affection. Polly is sweet, cheerful, resourceful and independent. This Pretty Polly is from a 17th century broadside.

Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer sang Sweet Polly Oliver on their 2007 CD Sliptease. They noted:

The tale of a girl chasing after her true love by pretending to be a soldier. It's got a happy ending—as suggested by the title of the accompanying tune. The words are from the BBC publication Singing Together (1975) based on the broadside song Pretty Polly Oliver.

The Dollymops sang Polly Oliver's Rambles in 2011 on their CD of traditional songs from the Isle of Wight collected by W.H. Long, Long Songs.

Shirley Collins sang Pretty Polly on her 2016 album Lodestar. She commented in her album notes:

A song found throughout England and the U.S., this version is the one I recorded from Mrs Ollie Gilbert in Timbo, Arkansas, in 1959. Alan Lomax, with whom I was working, had settled down to talk and drink with Oscar Gilbert, a fine singer, fiddle player, maker of moonshine, and known as “the fightingest man in the county”. I'd been banished to join the womenfolk—but I had the recording machine with me, and took down several songs from Oscar's wife Ollie, a good singer in true Ozark mountain style, and a great source of songs. Pretty Polly remained a favourite of mine for over fifty-five years; I could never quite get out of my head her use of ‘Nunited’ instead of ‘United’ and the was she fitted in “I'm a Nunited States soldier from George Washington I came” in a line that didn't quite have enough notes!


George Dunn sings Polly Oliver

One morn as Polly Oliver lay dreaming in bed
The thought of her true love came into her head.
Neither father nor mother shall make me false prove,
For I'll 'list for a soldier and follow my true love.

Next morning Polly Oliver very early arose
And dressed herself up in a man's suit of clothes,
With a waistcoat and jacket and a sword by her side
On her father's green dragon away she did ride.

Oh, she rode till she came to the sign of the Crown,
And called for a pint of strong ale that was brown;
And the first that came in was a man from abroad [above],
And the next that came in was Polly Oliver's true love.

“Oh, good morning, kind captain, good morning”, said she;
“I'm a new-'listed soldier to fight for my queen;
To fight for my queen, my boys, on land or by sea',
… … …

When supper was over she hung down her head
And called for a candle to light her to bed.
The captain made this reply, “There's a bed at my inn,
And you may lie in it, countryman, if you please.”

Next morning very early Polly Oliver arose
And dressed herself up in her own suit of clothes.
… … …

'Er went down into the bar and the captain followed 'er down, and he said to 'er:
“If I lay with you the first time the fault was not mine,
And I hope to use you better, love, the very next time.”

Emily Portman and Lauren McCormick sing Polly Oliver

One night as Polly Oliver lay musing in bed
A comical fancy came into her head:
Neither father nor mother shall make me false prove
I'll list for a valiant soldier and follow my true love.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Right fol the day,
Right fol the diddle all the day.

So early next morning Polly Oliver arose
And dressed herself up in a suit of man's clothes.
Short jacket and trousers and a sword by her side,
On her father's black gelding away she did ride.

She rode till she came in to fair London town
And dismounted her horse at the sign of the crown.
And the first to come in was a man from abroad
And the next to come in was Polly Oliver's true love.

“Good evening, bold captain, good evening,” said she,
“Here's a letter from your true love, Polly Oliver, to thee.
And in that same letter is a guinea and a crown
For you and your companions to drink her health round.”

“Her health shall not be drunk by just one or by two,
But her health shall be toasted by all the ship's crew.
And if I had punch bowl all into my hand
I'd drink to Polly Oliver who's on the dry land.”

And then she grew weary, then she hung down her head
And called for a candle to light her to bed.
The captain made answer, “I've a bed at my ease
And you may lie with me, young man, if you please.”

“To lie with a captain is a dangerous thing.
I'm a new enlisted soldier to fight for the king.
To fight for the king by sea or by land
And if you'll be my captain I'll serve at your command.”

So early next morning Polly Oliver arose
And dressed herself up in her own suit of clothes.
And downstairs she came from her chamber above,
Saying, “Here is Polly Oliver, your own dearest love.”

The captain was astounded but he laughed at the fun.
And now they are married and all things are done.
“If I had laid with you the fault had been mine
And I hope to please you better, love, for now is the time.”

Shirley Collins sings Pretty Polly

Way down in a lone valley Pretty Polly did dwell,
She was courted by a Captain who loved her so well.
But when her cruel parents came this for to know
They parted Pretty Polly and her own true love.

One night she lay musing on her bed
And a sudden strange notion come to Polly's head:
“No father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list for a soldier and follow my love.”

Then coat and britches she put on
And in every degree she looked like a man.
She went to the stable, six horses she found,
And saddled a mare could travel the ground.
With a brace of pistols swung by her side
Like a United States soldier Pretty Polly did ride.

She rode, she rode till she came to the town
And there she put up at the sign of The Crown.
The first'n she met was an English, O Lord!
And the next'n was Captain, Pretty Polly's true-love.

“What news from the country, what news do I hear?”
She handed him a letter from Polly-o-dear.
He opened the letter, to pages he found,
Saying Polly is a soldier with the men all around.

Now Polly being weary she hung down her head,
She called for a candle to light her to bed.
The Captain replied, “I've a bet at my ease,
And you may lie with me, kind sir, if you please.”

“Well, to lie with a Captain is to lie with a king;
I'm a United States soldier from George Washington I came.
I'll fight for my liberty by sea and by land.
If you'll be my captain I'll be your command.”

Now Polly is married, she lives at her ease,
She goes out when she's ready, returns when she please.
She left her old parents to weep and to mourn,
Saying, “Polly, o Polly when will you return?