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- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Commentary
- 3 Cultural relationships
- 4 Music
- 5 See also
- 6 Further reading
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
A man, sometimes called Johnny Randle, goes out hunting for birds. Usually this is described as being in the evening or by moonlight in the rain. He sees something white in the bushes. Thinking this is a swan, he shoots. To his horror he discovers he has killed his true love, Polly Vaughn, sheltering from the rain. Returning home, he reports his mistake to his uncle and is advised not to run away. He should stay and tell the court that it was an honest mistake. The night before Polly's funeral, her ghost appears to confirm his version of the events.
The narrator imagines all the women of the county standing in a line, with Polly shining out among them as a "fountain of snow". Since the fairest girl in the county has died the girls are said to be glad of her death. In some versions there is no scene of guilty confession and no ghost.
We are not told of the outcome of the trial. Is he found guilty of murder or not? Would he be guilty of poaching? Is seems rather mean-spirited of the girls of the county to be glad of her death, simply because she was fairer than them all. The emphasis on Polly's fair skin, and the reaction of all the girls of the county has led most commentators to suggest that there is a supernatural element.
Polly wears a white apron, and has a name which usually sounds like "Mailí Bhán". In Irish Gaelic, this translates as "Fair Mary".
Baring-Gould commented that there is some similarity to Celtic legends about "The Swan Maidens". (see Swan Maiden). Anne Gilchrist in the Journal of the Folksong Society (number 26) points to many tales about women turning into swans. There is a fairy tale called "An Cailin" (The Fair Girl). A version of this story was recorded as "Cailín na Gruaige Báine" on the album Aoife by Moya Brennan. Roy Palmer recalls the story of the death of Procris in classical antiquity. In Ovid's collection of stories "Metamorphoses" Nephele throws a javelin at his sweetheart, and kills her while hunting. This interpretation might be called the "Romantic Celtic" version, and has been embraced by Shirley Collins and others.
A more mundane interpretation is that the invention of the rifle inevitably led to an increase in accidents while hunting. If this song had really been an echo of ancient mythology we would expect to find versions in Scotland and indeed throughout Europe. With the exception of one version in Scotland, the song has been found only in England, Ireland, USA, Australia and Canada. Moreover, there are no versions known before 1806. We would have expected earlier versions or fragments. This down-to-earth interpretation of the song is rare.
Hugh Shields suggested that the story might be based on a real event in Kilwarlin, co. Down. The song is discussed in "EDS" (English Dance and song) Autumn 2006 edition.
At the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth century there was an increase in the use of rifles among hunters, as it became cheaper to manufacture.
The absence of any trial in the song suggests that the sympathies of the hearers were with the hunter. Swan is not a particularly tasty bird, and most hunters would have preferred to shoot deer. There are versions of this song called "This Shooting of his Dear", where Polly is killed in mistake for a deer. There is obviously a play on words with the word "Deer/Dear".
The idea that someone who accidentally killed someone should not run away, shows a certain confidence in the judicial system. The song is a domestic tragedy, and has no elements of class conflict.
There is a slight tendency for the name "Molly" to be used more frequently in the Irish versions of the song, and for "Polly" to be used in the English versions.
Most traditional songs involving tragic death are included among the Child ballads. The absence of this song from that list has puzzled several commentators, since Francis Child must surely have known about the song.
It was published in Robert Jamieson's 'Popular Ballads and Songs from tradition, manuscripts and scarce editions', 1806. Jamieson writes about this song, "This is indeed a silly ditty, one of the very lowest description of vulgar English ballads which are sung about the streets in country towns and sold four or five for a halfpenny". Jamieson's opinion might have coloured Child's decision to exclude it.
Jamieson says that it also goes by the name "Lord Kenneth and Fair Ellinour" , but nobody else has used this name for the song. This sounds like a misinterpretation, since there is a Child Ballad (number 73) called "Lord Thomas and Fair Elleanor" which involves a man killing a fair woman, but without any of the motivation of hunting for a swan.
- Roud 166
- Laws O36
- The website "irishtune" categorises this as tune number 590 "Molly Bán" Irishtune
- In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "O'Neill's Music of Ireland" it is tune number 1474
- In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "The Dance Music of Ireland. 1001 Gems" it is number 703.
Broadside printings of this song are known from:
- Pitts (London) (between 1802 and 1819)
- Disley (London)
- Kendrew (York)
- Kenedy (New York) 1884
- Pearson (Manchester)
- Haly (Cork)
- J. F. Nugent & Co (Dublin) (between 1850 and 1899)
The song exists under the titles:
- "Polly Vaughan"
- "Polly Vaughn"
- "Molly Bawn"
- "Molly Ban"
- "Molly Bender"
- "Molly Bond"
- "Molly Vaughan"
- "Molly Van"
- "Polly Von"
- "The Shooting of His Dear"
- "As Jimmie Went A-Hunting"
- "The Fowler"
- "An Cailin Bán" (instrumental version)
- "Fair Haired Molly" (instrumental version)
The Irish tune "An Cailín Bán" appears to have evolved separately from the English tune, and appears to be earlier.
Songs that refer to Polly Vaughn
"Polly Von" by Peter, Paul, and Mary "One Starry Night" by Black 47
According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, the title "Molly Bawn" is an Anglicised corruption of the Gaelic "Mailí Bhán," or Fair Mary (Fairhaired Mary, White Haired Mary). The symbol of a bird to represent a departing spirit from a dead body is common in art, particularly in scenes of the death of Christ.
The idea of the spirit of a dead person returning to speak to the living is quite common in ballads. Examples include "The Unquiet Grave" and "Murder at the Red Barn".
The name Bawn appears to be quite common in Irish literature. The Colleen Bawn is a melodramatic play by Dion Boucicault. "Molly Bawn,: A comedy drama in four acts" (1920) is by Marie Doran. There is also a song by Samuel Lover in the one-act opera "Il Paddy Whack in Italia" (1841) called "Molly Bawm". Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote a novel called Molly Bawn (1878). None of these stories concern women being shot in mistake for a swan.
Samuel Lover wrote tunes as well as novels and dramas. Ciaran Tourish recorded "Molly Bawn's Reel" but it is not connected with the song. This website: Reel suggests that Samuel Lover composed the tune.
In Canada there is company doing Whale and Puffin tours, called "Molly Bawn". There is a poem called "Polly Vaughn" in Les Barker's book "Alexander Greyhound Bell" It is presumably as parody of the song, as that is the sort of thing Les Barker does.
Television and movie references
There is a film made in 1916, called "Molly Bawn". It is set in Ireland in 1850. However it is not related to the song.
The earliest known version of the tune for the Irish version of the song, is earlier than the earliest printing of the words. Edward Bunting's "General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland" appeared in 1796. He printed the Irish tune three times in his manuscripts, each time noting it was traditionally the first to by learned by beginning harpers. If this in turn really is derived from O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary” then it must date back to 1738 or before.
Under the Irish title "An Cailín Bán" it is first mentioned in 1839 (The fair girl) as a tune rather than a song. The tune appears in "The Concertina and How to Play It" (1905) by Paul de Ville (as "Molly Bawn"), again implying it suitable for beginners to the instrument. This would suggest that the words were not married up with the Irish tune until sometime between 1840 and 1905.
The English tune is known from the time of Baring-Gould (c 1890).
In Atlantic Canada, particularly Newfoundland, a variation of the original song, titled "Molly Bawn" has been very popular through the years. This version depicts a man, reminiscing in sad despair, over the loss of his young bride many years ago. However, nowhere in the song is the manner of the girl's death mentioned. 
As there are three distinct ways of performing the song/tune this section has been divided up.
Section 1 – Performed as a folk song
|"The Acoustic Recordings (1910–1911)"||John McCormack||1911||"Molly Bawn"||classic tenor|
|"Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: Ireland"||Seamus Ennis||1955 (rec 1949/51)||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"The Shooting of His Dear" (single on HMV)||A.L. Lloyd||1951||"The Shooting of His Dear"||.|
|"The Voice of the People: Good People Take Warning"||Bess Cronin||2012 (rec 1952)||"Molly Bawn"|
|"Folk Songs of Britain, Vol 7"||Harry Cox||1962 (rec 1953)||"Polly"||.|
|"Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: England"||A.L. Lloyd||1955||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"The Maid From Ballingarry & Other songs From the Muscrai Tradition"||John O'Connell||1999 (rec c1960)||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"Marine Folk songs"||Louis Boutilier||1962||"As Jimmie Went A-Hunting"||Not really a marine song|
|"Back Porch Bluegrass"||The Dillards||1963||"Polly Vaughn"||1st USA version|
|"In The Wind"||Peter Paul and Mary||1963||"Polly Von"||Unusual spelling|
|"Hazards of Love"||Anne Briggs||1964||"Polly Vaughan"||Same as A.L. Lloyd version|
|"Sings at the Toronto Horseshoe Club"||Mac Wiseman||1965/2001||"Molly Bawn"||Newfoundland Version.|
|"Byker Hill"||Martin Carthy||1967||"Fowler Jack"||Unusual title|
|"Ballads and Songs of the Upper Hudson Valley"||Sarah Cleveland||1968 (rec 1966)||"Molly Bawn"||USa version|
|"Power of the True Love Knot"||Shirley Collins||1968||"Polly Vaughan"||Tune composed by Collins|
|"Mainly Norfolk"||Peter Bellamy||1968||"The Shooting of His Dear"||from Walter Pardon|
|"At It Again"||The Dubliners||1968||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"The Voice of the People vol 3"||Phoebe Smith||1998 (rec 1969)||"Molly Vaughan"||.|
|"The Voice of the People vol 6"||Packie Manus Byrne||1998 (rec 1974)||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"Folk Songs from Hampshire"||Cheryl Jordan||1974||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"Songs of a Donegal Man"||Packie Byrne||1975||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"On Banks of Green willow"||Tony Rose||1976||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"Dark Ships in the Forest"||John Roberts and Tony Barrand||1977||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"You Can't Fool The Fat Man"||Dave Burland||1979||"The Shooting of His Dear"||.|
|"Step Outside"||Oysterband||1986||"Molly Bond"||.|
|"Good as I Been to You"||Bob Dylan||1992||"Polly Vaughan"||This is an out-take. Circulating amongst collectors "Dylan and David Bromberg Sessions"|
|"Them Stars"||Margaret MacArthur||1996||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"Voices – English Traditional Songs"||Patti Reid||1997||"Fowler"||.|
|"Racing Hearts"||Al Petteway and Amy White||1999||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"Black Mountains Revisited"||Julie Murphy||1999||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father"||Walter Pardon||2000||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"Far in the Mountains"||Dan Tate||2000||"Molly Van"||Unusual spelling|
|"Down The Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions"||The Chieftains with Alison Krauss||2002||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"Over the Edge"||Moher||2003||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"Red colour Sun"||Pauline Scanlon||2004||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"The Hardy Sons of Dan"||Maggie Murphy||2004||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"Song Links 2"||Dave Fletcher and Bill Whaley||2005||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"A Promise of Light"||Jamie Anderson||2005||"Polly Vaughn"||.|
|"No Earthly Man"||Alasdair Roberts||2005||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"Day is Dawning"||Sussie Nielsen||2005||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"Of Milkmaids and Architects"||Martha Tilston||2006||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"Stranded"||Craig; Morgan; Robson||2006||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"Freedom Fields"||Seth Lakeman||2006||"The Setting of the Sun"||Unusual title|
|"The Weeping Well"||The Great Park||2007||"Polly Vaughan"||.|
|"A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection"||Alison Krauss||2007||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"Night Visiting"||Bella Hardy||2007||"Molly Vaughan"||.|
|"Bring Me Home"||Peggy Seeger||2008||"Molly Bond"||.|
|"Footsteps"||Chris de Burgh||2008||"Polly Von"||.|
Section 2 – Performed as a classical music arrangement
Benjamin Britten wrote many arrangements of folksongs. "Folksong Arrangements – volume 6" contains "The Shooting of His Dear". Ernest John Moeran composed "Six Folk Songs from Norfolk" in 1923. The 5th song is "The Shooting of his Dear". According to Barry Marsh, the song became as basis for Moeran's Symphony in G minor.
|"Music For voice and guitar"||Peter Pears and Julian Bream||(1993,recorded 1964)||"The Shooting of His Dear"||The Britten version|
|"Britten: The Complete Folksong arrangements"||Jamie MacDougall and Craig Lewis||1994||"The Shooting of His Dear"||.|
|"Down by the Salley Gardens"||Benjamin Luxon and David Willison||2001||"The Shooting of His Dear"||.|
|"Scarborough Fair"||James Griffett||2002||"The shooting of his dear"||arr Britten|
|"The Fowler"(single)||Christine Smallman + choir||unknown||The Fowler"||(arranged by Moeran)|
Section 3 – Performed as an instrumental
|"Traditional Music of Ireland"||Joe Burke with Charlie Lennon||c 1973||"Molly Bán"||.|
|"All Around The Circle: 12 Instrumental Selections"||The Stringbusters||c. 1973||"Molly Von"||Unusual Spelling. Instrumental rendition of the Newfoundland variant. Performed on a Traditional Irish-Style button accordion, accompanied by typical Country-Western instrumentation of that era (Electric Guitar, Drums, Steel Guitar, Electric Bass).|
|"Old Hag You Have Killed Me"||The Bothy Band||1976||"Molly Ban"||In the set called "Michael Gorman's"|
|"Traditional Music of Ireland"||James Kelly, Paddy O'Brien & Daithi Sproule||1981||"Molly Bawn (White-Haired Molly)"||.|
|"Carousel"||Seamus McGuire, Manus McGuire and Daithi Sproule||1984||"An Cailin Bán"||.|
|"A Whistle on the Wind"||Joanie Madden||1994||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"Under the Moon"||Martin Hayes||1994||"Fair Haired Molly"||Unusual title|
|"Traditional Music from the Legendary East Clare Fiddler"||Paddy Canny||1997||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"The Wide World Over"||The Chieftains||2002||"Little Molly"||Unusual title|
|"Ragairne"||Seamus Begley & Jim Murray||2002||"Cailin Ban"||.|
|"Down the Line"||Ciaran Tourish||2005||"Molly Bán"||.|
|"Duck Soup"||Duck Soup||2005||"Molly Bawn"||.|
|"In Session"||Eoin O'Neill||2006||"Molly Ban"||.|
|"The House I Was Reared In"||Christy McNamara||2007||"Molly Bán"||.|
Edward Madden wote the words, and M. J. Fred Helf wrote the music to a song called "Colleen Bawn" in 1906. The second verse is as follows:
- Colleen Bawn when I am gone I wonder will you miss me,
- DOn't be afraid some other maid Will fall in love and kiss me,
- For if they do I'll think of you A waiting here and sighing,
- I'll drop my gun and start to run, And home a flying.
The business about dropping his gun almost suggests the earlier ballad, but is otherwise unrelated. The song is about a soldier who longs to return to his Irish sweetheart.
In Canada a song called "Molly Bawn" has been captured by song-collector MacEdward Leach. MacEdward Leach. It has the line:
- Oh, Molly Bawn, why leave me pining, All lonely, waiting here for you?
but makes no mention of any shooting. It is probably unrelated.
Other songs with the same tune
The air "Molly ban so Fair" (1905, Stanford/Petrie collection), is probably unrelated.
According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, there is a variant similar to O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary.” (See Fiddlers companion)
- Karpeles, Maud. ed., "Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs". (1974)
- Lomax, Alan, ed. "The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language". (1960)
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- O'Connor, Jennifer (1986). "Canadian Journal for Traditional Music". The Irish Origins and Variations of the Ballad "Molly Brown". Canadian Journal for Traditional Music. Retrieved 6 November 2009.
Broadsheet sources are given here:
The ballad is discussed here:
The Irish tune is discussed here:
The lyrics are given here:
- Anne Briggs version
- My Own Molly Bawn
- Lyrics by Dillards
- Molly Bawn Lavery in Australia
- Australian versions
There is an mp3 version sung by Eula Maxfield Garrott, recorded in 1952 here:
Bob Dylan's version:
Paul de Ville's "The Concertina and How to Play It" containing Molly Bawn: