"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" evolved into "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" and "Pretty Polly", losing many of the specifics of the original.
"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 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.
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."
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".
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 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, with the remorseful killer instead turning himself in and confessing to the police.
David Lindley's version alters the ending and has Polly draw a razor and kill Willie instead.
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
- Bob Dylan
- Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
- Bill Frisell
- 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
- 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
- Yonder Mountain String Band
- Sam Amidon
- "Cruel Ship Carpenter". English Folk Dance and Song Society. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
- "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter". folkinfo.org. Archived from the original on 6 August 2009. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
- (for example) Full English; Henry Hammond Manuscript Collection (HAM/5/34/26) https://www.vwml.org/record/HAM/5/34/26 Retrieved 2017/05/04
- "John Barleycorn revisited". www.mustrad.org.uk. Retrieved 26 May 2021.
- "Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection". Images.library.yale.edu. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
- D.C. Fowler, "The Gosport Tragedy: Story of a Ballad", Southern Folklore Quarterly 43 (1979), 157-96.
- "Pretty Polly | Murder Ballad". Planetslade.com. 2 January 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
- Erbsen, Wayne (2003). Rural Roots of Bluegrass. Asheville, NC: Native Ground Music. pp. 136–137. ISBN 1-883206-40-5.
- "Ballads Online". Ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 22 February 2017.
- "Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 16 January 2021.
- 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.
- Marcus, Greil (15 May 1998). Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Henry Holt & Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-5842-0.[page needed]
- Gegenhuber, Kurt (15 March 2006). "The Celestial Monochord: Hollis Brown's South Dakota". celestialmonochord.org. Retrieved 4 June 2010.
- "Remembering the Old Songs: Pretty Polly, by Bob Waltz". Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1997. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
- Steve Sullivan (17 May 2017). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 64. ISBN 978-1-4422-5449-7.
-  A music video for Vandaveer's version of the song starring Tricia Vessey and David Yow
- An MP3 recording of Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs. Recorded in 1927 in New York City, USA.[dead link]
- An MP3 recording of Pretty Polly by B. F. Shelton. Recorded on 29 July 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, USA.[dead link]
- Tom Pettitt, "The Murdered Sweetheart: Child of Print and Panic?" (2005)