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> Waterson:Carthy > Songs > Polly’s Love
> The Halliard > Songs > Love and Murder

The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter / The Ghost Song / Polly’s Love / Love and Murder

[ Roud 15 ; Master title: The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter ; Laws P36A ; G/D 2:201, 2:202 ; Ballad Index LP36 ; The Gosport Tragedy at Fire Draw Near ; Bodleian Roud 15 ; GlosTrad Roud 15 ; DT SHIPCARP , SHIPCRP2 ; Mudcat 16745 ; trad.]

Paddy McCluskey of Clough Mills, Co Antrim, North Ireland, sang Young Willie to Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle on 5 August 1953. This BBC recording 20032 was included without verses 1, 3 and 4 on the anthology Fair Game and Foul (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 7; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970). The album’s booklet noted:

No British broadside ballad has been more important in American tradition than The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter or The Gosport Tragedy. It tells of a young lady lured from her home by her sailor-lover and murdered. Later, on shipboard, her ghost appears and tears him in three parts before the eyes of the superstitious crew. This latter part of the story did not survive in the common American variants, but the theme, the murder of the innocent and pregnant girl by her lover gave rise to many indigenous American ballads—Pretty Polly The Knoxville Girl, Hattie Stout, Down in the Lone Green Valley to mention only a few. This was certainly the most popular domestic folk ballad subject in middle America during the 19th century. Theodore Drieser chose it as the theme of his greatest novel, The American Tragedy.

Paddy McClusky, 73 years of age when he recorded this, presents a deeply moving if somewhat unusual variant. Normally it begins with the following two stanzas:

In fair Worcester City and fair Worcestershire
A handsome young damsel there was living there,
A handsome young man courted her to be his dear
And he was by trade a ship carpenter.

Now the King wanted seamen to go on the sea
That caused this young damsel to sigh and to say,
“O William o William, don’t you go to sea,
Remember the vows that you made with me.” …

Laws, 268-9.
Lomax, Folk Song USA, New York, 1947. (Pretty Polly).

Jeannie Robertson sang Miss Brown of Dublin City to Hamish Henderson and Jean Ritchie in September 1953. This recording’s Tobar an Dualchais entry SA1953.198.3 noted:

Four verses; all verses have four lines, except verse three which has only two mismatched lines. There are generally five verses in this Irish song, with the last verse missing in this performance.

A variant of Pretty Polly or The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.

Harry Cox sang Worcester City at his home in Catfield, Norfolk, to Mervyn Plunkett in September 1958. This recording was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day (The Voice of the People Volume 17).

Sam Larner sang The Ghost Ship (as recorded in 1958-60 by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger) on the Folkways LP Now is the Time for Fishing. At least, the album notes name it The Ghost Ship though Larner himself finished his rendering with the spoken words “The Ghost Song”. The album sleeve notes commented:

British balladry has many examples of the Jonah legend, songs in which a wrongdoer aboard a ship is unmasked by supernatural means and punished (often in order to avert a shipwreck). Bonnie Annie (Child 24) and its close relative The Banks of Green Willow are venerable examples of this form. Later branches of this genealogical tree of the Jonah ballad are The Guilty Sea Captain, The New York Trader and Captain Glen. It is to the last-mentioned that The Ghost Ship would appear to owe its origins. […] The Gosport / Gospard Tragedy, another relative, but with the sea and supernatural element excised, appears to have formed the basis of the well-known American murder ballad Pretty Polly.

Jon Raven sang this ballad as Love and Murder on his album with The Halliard, The Halliard : Jon Raven, originally published in 1968 and reissued on CD in 1997.

Peter Bellamy learned The Ghost Song from the singing of Sam Larner and sang it unaccompanied in 1969 on his third solo LP, The Fox Jumps Over the Parson’s Gate. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

For the best part of three hundred years the common folk have been unable to shake this melodrama out of their imagination, and ever since it appeared in print in the 1680s, it has influenced, and not infrequently formed the pattern for, a number of ballad about murdered ladies. Well-known all the way from Somerset to Aberdeen, it was printed over and again by nineteenth century broadside firms. At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was a favourite with stage comedians and in 1805, Laurie and Whittle of London published a sheet-music version, The Sailor and the Ghost, a whimsical ballad. As sung by Mr Moody, Mr Suett and Mr R. Palmer. A comic parody in the Sam Vellerish Cockney dialect of the time, called Molly the Betrayed, or the Fog-Bound Vessel, appeared in the 1840s. In America this song has—as often—lost its supernatural element and survives as the banal crime narrative called Pretty Polly. Alongside the burlesque versions, the folk have kept the song in its original sober form, as expressed in this version, learnt from the singing of Sam Larner of Winterton, Norfolk.

Mike Waterson sang The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in 1977 on his eponymous LP Mike Waterson. This track was also included on the 1996 Topic compilation CD English & Scottish Folk Ballads. A.L. Lloyd noted on the original album:

“Few ballads are more popular with ballad printers than this,” said Frank Kidson. It has been on the go at least since 1750 or thereabouts, when it was published and sold “at the Printing Office in Bow Churchyard, London” as The Gosport Tragedy, or, Perjured Ship Carpenter. In America it has been enormously successful under the title Pretty Polly. A comic parody appeared c. 1830, in the mock-Cockney dialect much favoured at the time; the stage version ends thus (when the murderer is unmasked):

Then Villiam turned red and then white and then green
Vhile Molly’s pale ghost at his side it vos seen;
Her buzzom vos vhite, the blood it vos red,
She spoke not, but wanished, and that’s all she said.

The ballad has been sung to countless different tunes. This version was got by Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle from Paddy McClusky of Lislarin, Co. Antrim, and published in The Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, vol. VIII, No. 1.

Norma Waterson sang this song as Polly’s Love in 1996 on Waterson:Carthy’s second album Common Tongue. This track was also included in her anthology Norma Waterson: The Definitive Collection. Martin Carthy noted on the original album:

Jim Eldon is responsible for both Norma and her brother Mike learning Polly’s Love because he sings a version which he collected in the East Riding. They both sing Jim’s astounding Fair Maids are Shining first verse, and then go their own ways through this savage and riveting story.

Jackie Oates learned The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter from the singing of Mike Waterson. She recorded it in 2006 for her eponymous first album Jackie Oates. This track was also included on the CD BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2008.

James Findlay sang Mary and the Ship’s Carpenter in 2009 on his first album, As I Carelessly Did Stray. He noted:

Yet another gruesome ghost story; and more proof that ships’ carpenters are not really good guys to get around with.

Jon Boden sang Sam Larner’s and Peter Bellamy’s verses as The Ghost on 11 June 2011 in his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the blog:

Of all the girl-friend murdering songs this must be the one with the most inappropriate tune. Somehow that makes it all the more horrific, particularly with the unusual denouement. Don’t know of any other versions where she gets her own back. Nice.

Damien Barber and Mike Wilson sang The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in 2011 on their CD The Old Songs, giving their source in their liner notes:

Another song gotten many years ago from the brilliant Mike Waterson, who in turn got the song from another fine singer from the East Riding of Yorkshire, Jim Eldon.

Steeleye Span sang Cruel Ship’s Carpenter in 2019 on their 50th anniversary album, Est’d 1969. They noted:

This comes from a time when pregnancy was the ruination of life, and there was wasteland enough to hide a body, and the perpetrator could disappear forever on board ship. A time before this close knit world of ours, welded together by technology, and advances in science.

Andy Turner learned The Ghost Ship from the singing of Peter Bellamy and sang it as the 17 May 2020 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Piers Cawley sang The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter on his 2020 download album Isolation Sessions #2. He noted:

Norma Waterson sang the opening line, and I had to have the song. The line makes no sense at all, but I love it dearly. Another one that probably needs a trigger warning up front for the unprovoked violence. And another that demonstrates that, if you want to get out of a folk song alive, don’t get pregnant.

Holly & the Reivers sang In Dublin’s Fair City on their 2023 album Three Galleys. They noted:

A supernatural murder ballad about the revenant ghost of young Mary, who cursed her killer in one last act of vengeance. This song was collected by Hamish Henderson from Jeannie Robertson.

Lyrics

Paddy McCluskey sings Young Willie

[ Fair ones are shining on foreign earth and town—
There lived a young damsel, her name was Miss Brown;
She courted young Willie, her darling to be,
His trade’s name and steady a ship’s carpenter had been. ]

Early one morning, before it was day,
A voice came to the window and unto her did say,
‘Rise up, love-lie Mary, and come along with me
Before you get married, our friends we must see.”

[ He led her through fields and through valleys so deep,
Till at length lovely Mary begin for to weep,
Saying, “Willie, lovely Willie, you have led me all wrong—
Through fields and through valleys my life for to betray.” ]

[ “It’s just the truth you say to me, it’s just the truth you say
For late, late last night I was digging your grave;
Your grave that is open and a spade standing by,
And into the grave your fair body must lie.” ]

He stabbed her, he stabbed her till the red blood did flow,
And into the grave her fair body did throw;
He hobbed her so neat-lie and he hobbed her so sound,
Expecting this murder would never be found.

Early one morning before it broke day,
O up came the Captain and thus he did say,
“There’s murder on ship-board has late-lie been done,
Our good ship’s in mourning and cannot sail on.”

Up came a sailor: “Indeed, sir, not I.”
Up came another: “Indeed, sir, not I.”
But up came young Willie to damn, curse and swear—
“Indeed, sir, not I, sir, I vow and declare.”

As Willie was going and turning around,
He met love-lie Mary, she was dressed in brown,
She catched him, she catched him, she tore him in three,
Saying: “That’s for the murder of baby and me.”

Jeannie Robertson sings Miss Brown of Dublin City

In Dublin’s fair city, in Dublin’s fair town,
In Dublin’s fair city there lived a Miss Brown.
For she courted a sailor for seven long years,
And from the beginning he called her his dear.

But one morning very early, all by the break o’ day.
For he came to her window and to her he did say:
“Rise up bonnie Mary and come along with me;
For such things they will happen and such things we will see.”

But he took her over mountains and he took her over dales;
And he left his poor Mary for to weep and for to wail.

“O sailor, O sailor, come spare me my life,”
But out of his pocket he drew a pocket knife.
O he stabbed her and he ripped her and he cut her in three,
And he buried poor Mary underneath a green tree.

Harry Cox sings Worcester City

In Worcester city in fair Worcestershire
A handsome young damsel when she lived there,
Young William he courted her all to be his dear
And he by his trade was a ship’s carpenter.

Now, it happened one day when his wages were paid,
Straightaway he went to her and this he did say,
“Oh, Polly, dear Polly, you must go with me
Before we are married some friends for to see.”

Now, he led her over hills and down valleys so deepm
At last this fair damsel began for to weep.
“Oh, William, dear William, you’ve led me astray
On purpose my innocent life to betray.”

“It is true, it is true there is no time to stand.”
He immediately took a sharp knife in his hand.
He pierced her fair body till the blood it did flow,
And into her grave her fair body did go.

Now, he covered her up when so neat and secure,
Thinking no one would find her for he was quite sure.
Then he went on board ship to sail the world round;
He thought that the murder would never be found.

Now, they had not been sailing scarce days two or three,
When up spoke the captain to the ship’s crew said he,
“Here’s a murderer on board that has lately been done.
Our ship she’s in mourning she cannot sail on.”

Then up spoked one, “It’s not me,” he did saym
Then up spoke another the same he did say.
Then up spoke young William to curse and to swear,
“It’s not me, it’s not me I will vow and declare.”

Sam Larner sings The Ghost Song

Now the Queen she wants sailors to sail on the sea,
Which made pretty Polly’s stout heart to bleed,
Saying, “William, dear William, don’t you go to sea.
Remember the vows that you made unto me.”

Now it was early next morning before it was day,
He went to his Polly, these words he did say,
Saying: “Polly, pretty Polly, you must come along with me,
Before we are married, my friends for to see.”

He led her through groves and through valleys so deep,
Which made pretty Polly to sigh and to weep,
Saying, “William, dear William, you’ve led me astray,
On purpose my innocent life to betray.”

“Oh, yes, dearest Polly, ‘tis true all thou hast said,
For all this long night I’ve been digging your grave,”
And the grave being open and the spade standing by,
Which made pretty Polly to weep and to say.

“Oh, pardon, dear William, my innocent life,
I never will regret for to be your dear wife;
I’ll travel the country over, all for to set you free,
Remember the vows that you made unto me.”

“No pardon, no pardon, no pardon I’ll give.”
And with that he drew out a long-daggered knife;
He stabbed her to the heart ‘til the blood did then flow,
And into the grave her fair body did throw.

Now he buried her securely in Upwall quite sound,
Not thinking this body would ever be found;
He then went on board for a sailor to go,
Not thinking this murder would ever out-throw.

Now ‘twas early one morning before it was day,
Our captain came up and these words he did say:
“Our ship she’s in mourning and cannot sail on,
There’s a murder on board which has lately been done.”

Now up jumped a sailor, “Indeed it’s not me!”
Then up jumped another, the same he did say;
Then up jumped bold William, to stamp and to swear,
“Indeed it’s not me, sir, I vow and declare.”

Now he hastened to the fore-castle with speed,
And he met his pretty Polly which made his heart bleed;
She ripped him, she stripped him, she tore him in three,
Because he had murdered her baby and she.

Spoken: That’s “The Ghost Song”

Jon Raven sings Love and Murder

In Worcester town and in Worcestershire
A youthful young damsel she lived there;
A young man he courted her to be his dear
And him for his trade was a ship’s carpenter.

The king wanted men for to go upon sea
Which caused this damsel to sigh and to say,
“Oh Billy, oh Billy. don’t you go to sea,
Oh don’t you remember what you promised me.”

Early, early one morning before it was day
He went to his Polly these words he did say,
“Oh Polly, oh Polly, you must go with me
Before we are married my friends for to see.”

He led her through woods and the valleys so deep
Which caused this maiden to sigh and to weep,
“Oh Billy, oh Billy, you’ve led me astray
On purpose my innocent life to betray.”

“It is true, it is true, these words you have said,
For all this night I’ve been digging your grave.”
The grave being open and she standing by
Which caused this maiden to sigh and to cry.

“Oh Billy, oh Billy, please pardon my life,
I never will covet for to be your wife.
I’ll travel the country to set you free
If that you will pardon my baby and me.”

“No pardon here is, there’s no time for to stand,”
With that he had a sharp knife in his hand.
He stabbed her heart till the blood it ran through
And into her grave her fair body he threw.

He covered her up so safe and secure,
Thinking no-one could find her of that he was sure.
He went upon board for to sail the world round
Before this murder ever was found.

Early, early one morning before it was day
Our captain came up and these words he did say,
“There’s a murder on board which has lately been done.
Our ship is in mourning we cannot sail on.”

Oh then up steps one and, “Indeed it’s not me,”
Then up steps another and, “Indeed it’s not me.”
At length up steps Billy and this he did swear,
“Indeed it’s not me, I vow and declare.”

As he was turning from the captain with speed
He met with his Polly which made his heart bleed.
She ripped him, she tore him, she tore him in three
Because that he murdered her baby and she.

Peter Bellamy sings The Ghost Song

Now the queen she wants sailors to sail on the sea
Which made pretty Polly stood up for to plead,
Sayin’, “William, dearest William, don’t you go off so sea;
Please remember the vows that you made unto me.”

But ’twas early next morning before it was day
When he went to his Polly, these words he did say,
Sayin’, “Oh Polly, pretty Polly, you must come ’long with me,
Before we are married my friends for to see.”

So he led her through groves and through valleys so deep
Which made pretty Polly to sigh and to weep,
Sayin’, “William, dearest William, you have led me astray
On purpose my innocent life to betray.”

“Oh yes, dearest Polly, ’tis true all you’ve said,
For all this long night I’ve been digging your grave.”
And the grave it being open and the spade standing by,
Which made pretty Polly to weep and to cry.

“Oh pardon, dear William, my innocent life.
And I’ll never regret for to be your dear wife.
I’ll travel old England over all to set you free,
Please remember the vows that you made unto me.”

“But no pardon, no pardon, no pardon I’ll give.”
And with that he drew out a long daggered knife.
He stabbed her to the heart and the blood did down flow,
And into a grave her fair body did throw.

Now be buried her securely in Upwall quite sound
He’s not thinking the body would ever be found.
Then he went on board for a sailor to go,
Not thinking this murder would ever o’erthrow.

But ’twas early one morning before it was day
Then our captain came up and these words he did say,
“Our ship she is in mourning and cannot sail on,
There’s a murder on board what has lately been done.”

Then up jumped one sailor, “And indeed, that’s not me”,
Then up jumped another, the same he did say,
Then up jumped bold William to stamp and to swear,
Sayin’, “Indeed, that’s not me, sir, I’ll vow and declare.”

Then he hastened to the forecastle with speed
There he met pretty Polly which made his heart bleed.
She ripped him, and she stripped him, and she tore him in three,
Because he had murdered her baby and she.

Mike Waterson sings The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter

Fair ones are shining on foreign earth and town—
There lived a lovely damsel whose name it was Miss Brown.
She courted handsome Willie, her darling for to be:
His trade long and steady, a ship’s carpenter was he.

It were early one morning before the break of day,
A voice come to the window, and thus to her did say,
Saying, “Rise up, lovely Mary, and come along with me
Before we are married, some friends for to see.”

And he led her through the fields and through the valleys oh so deep,
Till at length lovely Mary began for to weep,
Saying, “Willie, handsome Willie, you have led me astray
Through fields and through valleys, my life to betray.”

“It’s truth that you say to me, it’s just the truth you say,
For late late last night I was a-digging your grave,
Your grave that is open and a spade standing by,
And down into the grave your fair body must lie.”

And he stabbed her, he stabbed her till the red blood it did flow
And into the grave her fair body he did throw.
And he’s buried her so neatly and he’s covered her so sound,
Expecting this murder would never be found.

It were early one morning before the break of day,
Up has come the captain, and this to all did say:
“There’s murder on shipboard has lately been done:
Our good ship lies in mourning and cannot sail on.”

Then up spoke one sailor, “Indeed, sir, not I.”
Up spake another, “And the same I do deny.”
Then up spake young Willie, to damn, curse, and swear:
“Indeed sir, not I, sir, I vow and declare.”

But as he was a-going and turning around,
He spied lovely Mary, she was dressed all in brown.
Why, she’s snatched at him and she’s catched him, and she has tore him in three,
Saying, “That’s for the murder of my baby and me.”

Norma Waterson sings Polly’s Love

Fair maids are a-shining over valley and town.
There once was a young girl her name it was Miss Brown.
A young man came a-courting her dear for to be,
And he was by trade a ship’s carpenter was he.

Well, the king he needed sailors for to go off to sea.
This made the young maiden to cry and to say,
“William, O William, do not leave me here,
Remember the vows you have made to your dear.”

But it was early the next morning before it was day
He’s gone to his Polly, these words he did say,
“Polly, O Polly, you must come along with me,
Before we get married, my friends for to see.”

Then he’s led her through the groves and through the valley so deep.
This caused poor Polly to cry and to weep,
“William, O William, you’ve led me astray
On purpose to take my own sweet life away.”

“No pardon will I give you and there’s no time to stand.”
And there in a moment drew a knife with his hand.
He stabbed her poor body till red blood did flow
And into a grave her poor body did throw.

Then he’s covered her body so safe and secure,
He thought none would find her, of that he was sure.
Then he went on board ship to sail the world around
Before that his murder would ever be found.

It was early one morning before it was day
The captain came to him, these words he did say,
“There’s a murderer on board and it’s lately been done.
Our ship she’s in mourning and cannot sail on.”

And up stepped one sailor, “Indeed, sir, not I”,
And up stepped one other, “Indeed, sir, not I”,
And up stepped young William to storm, curse, and swear,
“Indeed, sir, not I, sir, I vow and declare.”

And as he was a-turning from the captain with speed
He’s met pretty Polly, it’s made his heart bleed.
She’s ripped him, she’s stripped him, she’s tore him in three,
Crying, “That’s for the murder of my baby and me.”

Steeleye Span sings Cruel Ship’s Carpenter

In fair Worcester town and in fair Worcestershire
A beautiful damsel, she once lived there.
A young man he courted her, all for to be his dear,
And he by his trade was a ship’s carpenter.

Early one morning, before it was day
He turned to his Polly, these words he did say:
“Oh Polly, oh Polly, you must come with me
Before our wedding day, my friends and family to see.”

He led her through woods and through valleys so deep
Which caused this young damsel to cry and to weep:
“Oh Billy, oh Billy, you have led me astray,
On purpose my innocent life to betray.

“Oh Billy, oh Billy, pardon my life,
I never will covet for to be your wife.
I’ll travel the whole world to set myself free
If you will but pardon my poor baby and me.”

“There’s no time for pardon, there’s no time to save,
For all the night long I’ve been digging your grave.
And now it lies open, the spade is standing by.”
Which caused this poor maiden to weep and to cry.

He covered her up, so safe and secure,
Thinking no-one would find her he was sure.
And then he went onboard to sail the world round
Before that his murderous crime could ever be found.

Early one morning, before it was day,
The captain he stepped up and these words he did say:
“There’s a murderer on board and he must be known,
Our ship is in mourning, we cannot sail on!”

Well up steps the first man, “I’m sure it’s not me.”
Then up steps the second, “I’m sure it’s not me.”
Then up steps bold William, to stamp and to swear,
“I’m sure it’s not me sir, I do vow and declare.”

He turned from the captain and thought himself free
But the ghost of his Polly would not let him be.
She ripped him, she tore him, she tore him in three,
Because that he murdered her poor baby and she.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription of The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter, to Michael E. Hishikawa for the transcription of Polly’s Love and to Garry Gillard for the transcription of Love and Murder.