A broadside version of the ballad
|English folk song|
|Area(s)||collected in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America|
|Publication date||before 1766|
|Catalogue(s)||Laws P36, Roud 15|
|Notable performer(s)||Dock Boggs|
"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.
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.
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"); Judy Collins' 1968 recording featured alternating verses switching back and forth between Polly and Willie's perspectives. American versions also tend to omit the reason for killing Pretty Polly and Willie's subsequent madness or haunting by Polly's ghost.
David Lindley's version alters the ending and has Polly draw a razor and kill Willie instead.