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Pretty Polly

[ Roud 15 ; Laws P36B ; Ballad Index LP36B ; The Gosport Tragedy at Fire Draw Near ; PrettyPolly at Old Songs ; Bodleian Roud 15 ; GlosTrad Roud 15 ; trad.]

The cruel murder ballad Pretty Polly is a shortened version of The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter / The Gosport Tragedy (Laws P36A). Although no clear line between both ballads can be drawn, the Traditional Ballad Index tends to call the piece The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter if it includes the ghost and Pretty Polly if it doesn’t.

The 2015 anthology of British songs in the USA, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, contains several versions of Pretty Polly that were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. The respective singers were John Hammond, Dock Boggs, B.F. Shelton, Pete Steele, and the Coon Creek Girls.

Pete Seeger sang Pretty Polly at a Ballads and Blues concert at St. Pancras Town Hall Theatre, London, on 4 October 1959. A recording of this concert was issued in 1963 on the two Folklore Records albums Pete Seeger in Concert. Both were included in 2016 on his Fellside album Pete Seeger in England.

Hedy West sang Pretty Polly in 1961 on the Vanguard album New Folks.

Jean Ritchie sang Pretty Polly in a 1963 live recording on the Folkways album Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City. She noted:

I guess this must be a very old story, for I found it in England, in Scotland and in Ireland (Susan, Molly and Polly in the different countries, but always the same plot). Uncle Jason Ritchie also sang, while he was alive, the same story with very different words, called, The Oxfordshire Lass. The earliest noted version of the tragic tale is evidently an English one, The Miller’s Apprentice. Recently, Theodore Dreiser used a similar plot for his book, An American Tragedy.

Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger sang Pretty Polly in 1964 on their Topic album Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?. Tom Paley noted:

One of the best known of the widely popular “murdered girl” ballads, Pretty Polly is also a fine banjo tune and has received a measure of a attention from modem “blue grass” musicians. Other songs of this genre include Down in the Willow, The Jealous Lover, The Knoxville Girl, and The Banks of the Ohio.

Dave Sless sang Pretty Polly in 1965 on the Transatlantic album of a new generation of folk singers, Second Wave.

Bert Jansch sang Pretty Polly in 1966 on his Transatlantic album Jack Orion.

Sandy Denny sang Pretty Polly on 22 March 1967 in her session with Johnny Silvo. Sandy’s guitar is accompanied by double bass. The recording was originally released on Sandy and Johnny. It was reissued in 1977 on the German Nova compilation LP Sandy Denny, some time later on The Original Sandy Denny, and in 2005 on Where the Time Goes. An alternative recording from the same session was included in the Saga compilation LP Sandy Denny and—for the first time on CD—in 2005 on Where the Time Goes, together with the first version.

Judy Collins sang Pretty Polly in 1968 on her Elektra album Who Knows Where the Time Goes.

Dave Graham sang Pretty Polly in 1969 on his Decca album Hat.

Sweeney’s Men sang Pretty Polly in 1969 on their Transatlantic album The Tracks of Sweeney.

The Trees recorded Pretty Polly in ca. 1970 but the track wasn’t published until 2008 when it was included as a bonus track of the CD reissue of The Garden of Jane Delawney.

The Mother Bay State Entertainers sang Pretty Polly 1972 on the Living Folk album Pleasant and Delightful Vol. 2.

Francis Gillum sang two short verses of Pretty Polly, accompanied by Alva Green on fiddle, to Mark Wilson and Gus Meade at Isom, Kentucky, in April 1974. This recording was included in 2007 on the Musical Traditions anthology of folk songs of the Upper South, Meeting’s a Pleasure Volumes 1 & 2. Mark Wilson noted:

This song represents a locus classicus of how American pruning can sometimes improve a rather gaseous original, in this case the broadside ballad variously called The Gosport Tragedy or The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter. As such, it was widely printed in The Forget-Me-Not Songster and similar Yankee publications, but seems to have begun to shed its excess verses sometime in the later nineteenth century, possibly as the banjo drifted from the minstrel show into the countryside (Jim Garland and others told me that mountaineers would often return home from log drives down river with banjos or, at least, a notion of their construction). There are many, many wonderful recordings available: Pete Steele, Rdr 1511 & Fwys 3828; s The Stanley Brothers, Co 20770; B F Sheldon, Vi 35838; E C Ball, Rdr 0072 & 1511 & 1705. Here Francis sings just a snatch of the song, but the duo’s quintessential hill country sound proves quite stirring, I think.

Hot Vultures sang Pretty Polly in 1975 on their album Carrion On. This track was also included on their 1998 compilation Vulturama!. Ian A. Anderson returned to this song on his 2017 album Deathfolk Blues Revisited.

Amythyst Kiah with Roy Andrade sang Pretty Polly on the 2017 Appalachian ballad tradition anthology Big Bend Killing.

A Different Thread sang Pretty Polly on their 2020 EP Some Distant Shore.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage sang Polly O Polly in 2022 on their Topic CD Ink of the Rosy Morning. Hannah Sanders noted:

Many moons ago I travelled to a storytelling festival in Wenlock Edge and David Holt dropped into the bus for tea & stories and sang this song with his banjo. I was immediately struck by the economy of the storytelling and the dark, menacing melody. He gave me a cassette which I played to death. Some years later I heard him and Doc play this at Newport Folk Festival. I never ‘played it out’, but Ben immediately knew how to bring it to air.


Sandy Denny sings Pretty Polly

“Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me,
Before we get married some pleasure to see.”

She got up behind him and away they did ride,
She got up behind him and away they did ride,
Over the hills and the valleys so wide.

They rode a little further and what did they spy,
They rode a little further and what did they spy,
But a new-dug grave with a spade lying by.

“Oh Willy, oh Willy, I’m scared of your ways,
Oh Willy, oh Willy, I’m scared of your ways,
Scared you might lead my poor body astray.”

“Polly, pretty Polly, you’ve guessed just about right,
Polly, pretty Polly, you’ve guessed just about right:
I’ve dug on your grave the best part of last night.”

And he stabbed her in the heart and the heart-blood did flow,
And he stabbed her in the heart and the heart-blood did flow,
Into her grave pretty Polly did go.

He threw a little dirt over her and started for home,
He threw a little dirt over her and started for home,
Leaving nothing behind but the wild birds to moan.

And it’s debt to the devil, and Willy must pay,
And it’s debt to the devil, and Willy must pay,
For killing pretty Polly and running away.

Francis Gillum sings Pretty Polly

Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, you think it unkind,
Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, you think it unkind,
For me to set down by you and tell you my mind?

My mind is to marry and never part,
My mind is to marry and never part,
For the first time I saw you, you wounded my heart.


See also Paul Slade’s article Pretty Polly in his blog Planet Slade and in his book Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads.