Pretty Polly (ballad)

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"Pretty Polly", "The Gosport Tragedy" or "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" (Roud 15, Laws P36) is a traditional English-language folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America, among other places.[1]

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.[2][3]

"The Gosport Tragedy" evolved into "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" and "Pretty Polly", losing many of the specifics of the original.[4]

"The Gosport Tragedy"[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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 25 September 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.[7]

First printed in about 1727, the ballad tells the tale of Billson's murder of his pregnant girlfriend and his flight aboard the ship MMS Bedford. According to the story, a haunting turn occurred when a ghost confronted seaman Charles Stewart in the dark hold of the ship with a baby in her arms. When questioned by Captain Edmund Hook "the real villain saw the ghost of his lover before him, fell to his knees, and confessed to the ghastly crime. He later died aboard ship, presumably of scurvy."[8]

Later revisions[edit]

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".[9] 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[edit]

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"); Jean Ritchie's 1963[10] recording as well as 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, debt to the devil, or haunting by Polly's ghost,[11] 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.[12][13]

Woody Guthrie used the tune of "Pretty Polly" for "Pastures of Plenty".[14]

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

The South African-Congolese bluegrass/kwassa kwassa crossover band Congo Cowboys released a version of the song in 2020.[15]

Notable artists who have performed ballad versions[edit]

Notable artists who have performed "Pretty Polly"[edit]


  1. ^ "Cruel Ship Carpenter". English Folk Dance and Song Society. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
  2. ^ "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter". Archived from the original on 6 August 2009. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
  3. ^ (for example) Full English; Henry Hammond Manuscript Collection (HAM/5/34/26) Retrieved 2017/05/04
  4. ^ "John Barleycorn revisited". Retrieved 26 May 2021.
  5. ^ "Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection". Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  6. ^ D.C. Fowler, "The Gosport Tragedy: Story of a Ballad", Southern Folklore Quarterly 43 (1979), 157-96.
  7. ^ "Pretty Polly | Murder Ballad". 2 January 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  8. ^ Erbsen, Wayne (2003). Rural Roots of Bluegrass. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music. pp. 136–137. ISBN 1-883206-40-5.
  9. ^ "Ballads Online". Retrieved 22 February 2017.
  10. ^ "Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 16 January 2021.
  11. ^ Wilentz, Sean; Marcus, Greil (2005). The rose & the briar: death, love and liberty in the American ballad. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  12. ^ Marcus, Greil (15 May 1998). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-5842-0.[page needed]
  13. ^ Gegenhuber, Kurt (15 March 2006). "The Celestial Monochord: Hollis Brown's South Dakota". Archived from the original on 17 December 2017. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
  14. ^ "Remembering the Old Songs: Pretty Polly, by Bob Waltz". Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1997. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  15. ^ Congo Cowboys - Pretty Polly. YouTube. Archived from the original on 11 December 2021.
  16. ^ Steve Sullivan (17 May 2017). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 64. ISBN 978-1-4422-5449-7.

External links[edit]