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Pretty Polly

[ Roud 15 ; Laws P36B ; Ballad Index LP36B ; Bodleian Roud 15 ; trad. arr. A. Johnson]

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.

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

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 commented in the album's sleeve notes:

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 March 22, 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 alternate 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.

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.

Janet Russell sang Pretty Polly in 2012 on her Harbourtown CD Love Songs and Fighting Talk.

Lyrics

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.

Links

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.