Pretty Polly (ballad)

"Pretty Polly", "The Gosport Tragedy" or "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" (Laws P36, Roud 15) is a traditional English-language folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America, among other places.

The song is a murder ballad, telling of a young woman lured into the forest where she is killed and buried in a shallow grave. Many variants of the story have the villain as a ship's carpenter who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant. When he goes back to sea, either he is haunted by her ghost, confesses to the murder, goes mad and dies, or the ship will not sail, he denies the murder and is ripped to pieces by her ghost.

"The Gosport Tragedy"

There are a number of extant broadside copies of "The Gosport Tragedy", the earliest known version. It is a lengthy ballad composed of rhymed couplets, sixteen verses of eight lines each. A copy at the Lewis Walpole Library has an estimated date of 1760 to 1765. In "The Gosport Tragedy: Story of a Ballad", D.C. Fowler argued that the events described in the song may have taken place in 1726. The ship, identified as the Bedford often "lay at Portsmouth" as in the song. Fowler found evidence that a ship's carpenter on the Bedford by the name of John Billson died at sea on September 25, 1726, and that there was a Charles Stewart among the crew members at the time, as noted in some versions. The tragic protagonist, "Molly", does not seem to have been buried at the Parish Church of St. Mary's Alverstoke, the presumed "Gosford Church", as claimed in the song. Although hardly conclusive, a number of subsequent commentators have regarded Fowler's scenario as plausible.

Later revisions

In the nineteenth century, considerably shortened and altered broadside versions began appearing under a wide range of titles including "Love and Murder", "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter", "Polly's Love", "The Cruel Ship-Carpenter", "Nancy's Ghost", "Molly the Betray'd" and "The Fog-bound Vessel". The protagonist frequently appears as "Polly" (though not "pretty Polly") and the locale is often given as Worcester, although the names of Molly and Gosport appear in some, and there is little doubt of the connection with the "Gosport Tragedy".

Modern use

In the United States, the song had gained new life as a banjo tune by the time of its earliest recordings in the mid-1920s: John Hammond's "Purty Polly" of 1925 and 1927, and the "Pretty Polly" versions of B.F. Shelton and Dock Boggs, both of 1927.

American versions of the song, such as those of B.F. Shelton and Dock Boggs, tend to begin in the first person ("I courted Pretty Polly...") and switch to the third person for the murder ("he stabbed her to the heart"); Judy Collins' 1968 recording featured alternating verses switching back and forth between Polly and Willie's perspectives. American versions also tend to either omit the reason for killing Pretty Polly or portray him as a spurned suitor, and Willie's subsequent madness or haunting by Polly's ghost, with the remorseful killer instead turning himself in and confessing to the police.

The ballad is the musical basis for "Ballad of Hollis Brown" by Bob Dylan who played "Pretty Polly" himself in his early years.

Woody Guthrie used the tune of "Pretty Polly" for "Pastures of Plenty".

David Lindley's version alters the ending and has Polly draw a razor and kill Willie instead.

The song was performed by Hilarie Burhans for the closing credits of the sixth episode of Season 2, "Something Very Expensive" of the HBO series Deadwood.

The song was sung by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in Season 2 Episode 4 of the Netflix original series House of Cards.

In the DC Universe TV series Doom Patrol, one of Crazy Jane's alternate personalities is named Pretty Polly. The alter named Karen mocks her by singing the song at her.

Notable artists who have performed ballad versions

  • Peter Bellamy ("The Ghost Song")
  • Jon Boden ("The Ghost Song")
  • Jackie Oates ("The Cruel Ship's Carpenter")
  • Jon Raven ("Love and Murder")
  • Mike Waterson ("The Cruel Ship's Carpenter")
  • Waterson-Carthy ("Polly's Love")

    Notable artists who have performed "Pretty Polly"

  • David "Stringbean" Akeman
  • Estil C. Ball
  • Dock Boggs
  • The Byrds
  • Judy Collins
  • Shirley Collins
  • The Coon Creek Girls
  • Current 93
  • Sandy Denny
  • The Dillards
  • Bill Frisell
  • Gráda
  • Davey Graham
  • Mick Harris & Martyn Bates
  • Kristin Hersh
  • Burl Ives
  • Dr. Dog
  • John Fahey
  • Bert Jansch
  • Chris Jones
  • David Lindley
  • Patty Loveless
  • Aoife O'Donovan
  • Gilbert O'Sullivan
  • John Pearse
  • Queenadreena
  • The Red Fox Chasers
  • Jean Ritchie
  • The Sadies
  • Pete Seeger
  • Lee Sexton
  • B. F. Shelton
  • Sturgill Simpson
  • Hobart Smith
  • Kevin Spacey (in House of Cards)
  • Ralph Stanley
  • The Stanley Brothers
  • The String Cheese Incident
  • Sweeney's Men
  • Vandaveer
  • Yonder Mountain String Band