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Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham

28 Dec 13 - 08:24 PM (#3587222)
Subject: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Hilary

Quite recently, I came across a ballad called "Pretty Polly of Topsham" in Bulletin of the Folksong Society of the Northeast (2:16-17). I can't seem to find it in any other source, but am looking to find some more background information. According to Phillips Barry in the Bulletin, this song is referring to Topsham, Maine and the "Priest Ellis" is a Reverend Thomas Ellis who married a Mary Fulton of Topsham. What basis does this ballad have in fact? Perhaps, Mary was called Molly, which morphed into Polly for the purposes of this song?

The lyrics are as follows:

Come all you fair gallants, fair gallants attend,
A story, a story to you I will tell;
'Tis of a young sea captain, wherein he took delight,
And he courted a lady whose beauty was bright.

He had not courted her past twelve months, no more,
When his own business called him from the shore;
He went unto his Polly all for to take his leave,
Saying: "Polly, pretty Polly, I pray thee, don't grieve."

"For I'm going to cross the ocean,
Where the foaming billows roar, and the seas are in motion;
And if unto America I never do return,
Here I leave you, pretty Polly, in Topsham to mourn."

Past months two or three he had not been away,
When a young minister came there for to stay;
In viewing of her features, she looked so brisk and bold,
He made love unto her, as I have been told.

Saying, "Polly, pretty Polly, if you can fancy me,
I will make you as happy as happy can be;
But if to any other young man 'tis you are engaged,
I pray you prove true to the vows you have made."

"'Tis I am engaged, and the truth I will tell,
'Tis I am engaged, but I don't like so well;
He will be at home, and it is by-and-by,
And then you will see how quick him I'll deny."

This young man came home at last, as I have been told.
He brought home fine riches and fine stores of gold;
He brought home fine ribbons and fine silks so gay,
To adorn pretty Polly on her wedding day.

Saying, "Polly, pretty Polly, since I have been to sea,
Have you seen any other you love better than me?"
Then she turned herself around with a high and haughty air,
Saying, "Priest Ellis I love better, I suppose you don't care!"

Saying, "Polly, pretty Polly, since I must free my mind,
I think you are the falsest of all womankind;
Since I have been so constant, and you have proved untrue,
Farewell, pretty Polly, I bid you adieu."

"'Tis I will go a-rambling, go rambling for rest,
In hopes to relieve my poor tortured breast;
'Tis I will go a-rambling, like some dove around the shore,
And I never will go near my false Polly any more."

To me, it has the feel of a British broadside (vs. an American one) but I'm not sure which ballad served as its template, or if any did at all, so it would be interesting to hear if it rings any bells. The story is reminiscent of "Johnny Todd," but the phrasing is completely different, so I don't think there's more than an incidental connection there.

29 Dec 13 - 01:58 AM (#3587248)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham

Roud lists this as the sole source for the song: Pretty Polly of Topsham, Roud #19464


29 Dec 13 - 04:10 AM (#3587257)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,SteveT

No information I'm afraid but does anyone know a source for the tune? It would be an interesting twist to sing it at Topsham (the original one in Devon!!) folk club.

29 Dec 13 - 11:30 AM (#3587314)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Hilary

The tune is also in Bulletin of the Folksong Society of the Northeast. I'll try to make a copy of the sheet music since I don't think the book is readily available to many people.

29 Dec 13 - 03:56 PM (#3587381)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Julia L

That would be great Hilary- I found it in Susie Carr Young's manuscript at Houghton Library Harvard, but my copy did not come out well. I'm assuming this is the same as Phillips Barry worked with SCY?

best- Julia

BTW it reminds me of "The Green Bed", also called Pretty Polly which I have found in two other Maine collections

29 Dec 13 - 07:39 PM (#3587418)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Hilary

Sheet music should be available at this link. The first three lines of music are the tune for verse one and two and maybe all subsequent verses with the following exceptions. The next two lines are an alternative tune for phrase one and two, and the last two measures, of verse three. And the last four lines are the tune for verse ten. It's possible that the verse three tune is also supposed to work for verse six as well, with two verses of the regular tune, one of the alternate, and the last verse (odd one out) as its own tune.
Yes, this was collected from Susie Carr Young. Apparently she only knew it as sung in her own family, but supposedly a correspondent of the Lewiston Journal requested it once, so we know it was in tradition at one point. I'm unsure if the Journal ever printed it, though it would be interesting to see it if they did.
I don't think there is really any significant resemblance between this ballad and "The Green Bed," aside from the plot detail of the young man returning with riches from a voyage and being spurned by his former sweetheart. I don't get the feeling that she wants him only for money in this song, as in "The Green Bed." We don't know for certain if she knows about his new riches when he turns her down. It does seem like the meter is pretty similar though, or at least similar to versions I've come across.

29 Dec 13 - 07:57 PM (#3587420)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Hilary

Can you remember if Barry make any notes on the song in the manuscript?

29 Dec 13 - 11:08 PM (#3587452)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Julia L

The manuscript I saw is in Susie's hand only- it's the tune in her transcription notebook with only partial lyrics entered with the tune. I don't think she was much of a musician as it is rather inscrutable. I did do a search and the lyrics are included in an anthology of American folk poetry by Duncan Emrich. As he was a mere lad when it came out in the Bulletin, he no doubt lifted it from there (he was a New England preppy)

Looks to me like a local vernacular variant perhaps based on a true tale. BTW what made you think it was British?

cheers- Julia

30 Dec 13 - 04:05 AM (#3587475)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,SteveT

Thank you, Hilary, for the tune.

30 Dec 13 - 10:21 AM (#3587557)
Subject: RE: Origins: Seeking info on Pretty Polly of Topsham
From: GUEST,Hilary

What made me think it was British? At first I think it was largely my untrained intuition. I could make a more convincing argument based on the subject matter though. I have come across several British ballads dealing with love, but few American ones. This is not to say that American ballads do not deal with love at all, but it's rarely the central problem of the text. A look through Laws' classification might be able to confirm this. There is no category entitled "Ballads of Love" in Native American Balladry, but in American Balladry from British Broadsides, there are four categories dealing with love. American ballads about love are relegated to the other categories. Of the two that come to mind, "Lost Jimmy Whalen" is in the lumberjack category and "The Plain Golden Band" goes in miscellaneous. I should note that there is also a debate about whether or not "Lost Jimmy Whalen" is actually of American origin. No British original has been found, but that hasn't stopped scholars from speculating that its author had a British template. And, as I write this, I'm wondering if "The Plain Golden Band" has only escaped that fate because the evidence is so compelling that it was written by a man from New Brunswick. Maybe if we weren't pretty certain it was the work of Joe Scott, people would look for its British original. I have no doubt that "Pretty Polly of Topsham" itself was composed in the US, but I wonder if it was reworked from a British Ballad.
Of course, there are all kinds of holes which can be poked in this argument about differentiating subject matter. One could probably make an argument that several American murder ballads have romantic love as the central problem of the story. And "Plain Golden Band" goes against my theory. After all, just because there are few American ballads about love doesn't mean there aren't any.