Pretty Polly preserves ancient messages
by Rob Neufeld
British folk ballads survived in Western North Carolina as they had nowhere else, Cecil Sharp discovered when he went looking for them, with Maud Karpeles, during World War I.
Previously, Frances James Child, a Harvard professor, had spent nearly twenty years assembling his landmark sourcebook, “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.”
Starting about the same time as Sharp, Frank C. Brown, a Duke University professor and founder of the North Carolina Folklore Society, spent three decades compiling the five-volume collection, “North Carolina Folklore,” two volumes of which deal with folk ballads and songs.
It is to Brown’s collection and local variants of Child ballad number 4 we go to begin exploring the origins and pathways of sung tales.
“She had no arms for to force him away,/ No tongue for to tell him nay nay nay,” Rebecca Gordon of Saluda sang for Brown, describing Pretty Polly’s inability to resist a smooth-talking intruder.
Polly is just one name given the girl, who in the pre-American, British version is called Lady Isabel.
When Elizabeth Simpkins of Vanceboro sang the song for folklorist John B. Henneman around 1906, it was a maiden named Covanne who couldn’t say “No”; and she was entranced not by a magical elf-knight as in Europe, but by a regular fellow named William. Edith Walker of Boone never named the man in her rendition—he’s just “he”—and identified the lass, in a poetic quirk, as “Cold Rain.”
Details of folk songs change to fit local conditions, but certain essential elements survive centuries of adaptation and purposeful mutation.
American accounts of the girl and of the intruder—who, in all cases, lures her away, is exposed as a Bluebeard-like murderer, and is killed by her in a surprising twist—lose the supernatural magic of the European.
In Child’s first variant of the song, pulled from “Buchan’s Ballads of the North of Scotland,” the elf-knight doesn’t materialize until Isabel hears him blowing his horn and then dreams aloud: “If I had yon horn that I hear blawing,/ And yon elf-knight to sleep in my bosom.”
Folklorists have traced this seduction-by-hunter scenario back to the Dutch folk tale and ballad sequence, “Heer Halewijn.”
“Lord Halewyn sang a song,” the English translation goes, “and all who heard it wanted to be with him.”
Holger Olof Nygard, the expert on this song cycle—he wrote a whole book about it—shows how the story originally had begun in the woods and culminated with the girl cutting the villain’s head off; and that when it moved to France and England, the setting became a seaside cliff, and the method of death, drowning.
However, Nygard noted in a 1952 article for the “Journal of American Folklore,” “despite great variations that the story might have undergone as it passed from one people to another, among the most constant parts…are the dialogue interchanges between the two principles.”
The girl wins. Why does she win? She’s virtuous. How does she assert her virtue? With modesty and controlling words.
In the Germanic versions of the song, in which the elf-knight is decapitated, she has him lay his head on her lap to delouse him and sing him lullabies. In the English versions that eventually came to our area, she has him turn his back to her when she disrobes, as he has requested.
The ballad relates to the most popular genre of story in 17th century America, the captivity tale, in which an English woman, abducted by Indians, succeeds in guarding her virtue with words that would make John Milton proud.
It’s hard not to see the song as a conflict between two types of society—a settled, conservative one, in which women are domesticized and put on pedestals; and a nomadic, hunting one, in which men “steal” brides.
Lajos Vargyas, a Hungarian folklorist, traced the elf-knight story back further than Nygard, to the epic ballads of the Mongols—awesome horsemen 2,000 years ago—who told of abductions of women by alien tribes.
Now, let’s return to the Frank Brown collection, and “Pretty Polly,” as sung by Mrs. Hall of Buncombe County.
“My pretty little crowin’ chicken/ It’s don’t you crow too soon,” Mrs. Hall’s song begins. This is a borrowing from another song, in which a girl admits a lover, who leaves early because of a morally intrusive house bird. At the end of Mrs. Hall’s song, Polly bribes a parrot to keep its mouth shut about her wanderings so that her parents don’t find out.
Polly’s virtue is not ironclad. The evil she forbids is murder, not
“Six king’s daughters…I have drowned here,” is what false-hearted William had told her, after he’d gotten her to steal her father’s horses and ride with him to the sea. “And the seventh daughter you shall be be be.”
Seven is a holy number in the Bible. It completes a cycle, as in Genesis.
Pretty Polly outfoxes death, but also fertility. (There’s all kinds of harvest symbolism in the tale, including the name of the abductor in the Dutch version—Halewijn, like Halloween.)
At the end of Mrs. Hall’s song, when Polly promises the parrot a cage of gold and doors of “ivory-ry-ry,” the parrot relates, “There came a cat unto my nest to rob me of my rest,/ And I called pretty Polly to drive it away,/ And I called pretty Polly to drive it away.”
An identification is made between the danger-avoiding girl and a bird in a gilt cage.
Thanks, Rob, for this post. I'm working on a series of poems rising out of these ancient ballads, and I've begun my Pretty Polly piece, have completed (I hope) my Demon Lover piece, based on the Reynardine were-fox lore, an old Celtic song. Begun one on the Silkie of Shule Skerry, bringing it into the Southern mountains. If you go to Blue Fifth Review, an online zine at http://bluefifthreview.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/the-blue-collection... you'll find my rendering from Silver Dagger, one of my all-time favorites. Dolly Parton's latest rendition of it is pretty darn good. I really like Judy Collins's version of Pretty Polly, as well as Mary Chapin Carpenter's. Your post gives me lots of good details to work with on this project. Makes me want to get back to it right now.
I can't wait to read and write about your poem series. Blue Fifth Review is very interesting, too. I hope The Read on WNC can be a useful gateway for significant news and high quality material--there's so much out there. Thanks for helping to make the site interactive. Your fan, as you know/Rob