Polly Vaughn


Not that he’s ‘hammering’ a point here, but Jon says, “I’m very interested in the idea that this might be a remnant of a shape shifting myth, rather than a song about bad eyesight and interesting in reference to blacksmith ballads and the lay of Volundr (Wiki link here.)” It’s certainly a common enough story line going back to antiquity and the Greek myth of Cephalus, who shoots his wife having mistaken her for a deer is another example. Jon got this from Martin Carthy and this version is closest to his lyrically as you’ll see on this informative Mainly Norfolk thread here, which also quotes Carthy’s original sleeve notes, as well as A.L. Lloyd’s notes from Anne Briggs recording. The former again make reference to the many cultures in which women are transformed from or to swans, doves, (and also deer.) This Wiki link is interesting for a fairly exhausting (possibly exhaustive) list of recordings. I’m not convinced by the suggestion that this is anything but a retelling of the ancient myth, however. Mind you, having said that I found this from the Canadian Journal For Traditional Music via Mudcat referring to Molly Bawn (one Irish variant of the title), which is thorough to say the least and although rather long, if you have the time is well worth a read. I think the suggestion that there is some historical fact in the song is more likely a contemporary updating or recasting of the song to give it relevance. After all, that Wiki link makes the Mailí Bhán (Gaelic for fair Mary) shift look fairly obvious, nice though the idea of a conspiracy or cover up (explanation) of a murder (accidental death) might be. Given the number of versions of this, with apart from the usual suspects and sources, Bob Dylan, Martha Tilston, Alison Krauss (with The Chieftains and on her own), Alasdair Roberts, Bella Hardy, The Oysterband and many more having recorded this, I’m sure some of you will already be very much in-the-know. Your thoughts please.

You can buy the August digital album now from all good download stores


19 Responses to “Polly Vaughn”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Citizen Helene and Shelley Rainey, Jon Boden. Jon Boden said: Latest Post: Polly Vaughn http://www.afolksongaday.com/2010/08/17/polly-vaughan/ […]

  2. Phil says:

    I think the suggestion that there is some historical fact in the song is more likely a contemporary updating or recasting of the song to give it relevance.

    That’s possible. The only problem is that we’ve got no evidence that the song existed before 1799 – the most believable explanation is surely that the writer wrote it when he said he wrote it, and that it was inspired by a story about an incident that was believed to have happened.

    The great problem for the shapeshifting interpretation of this song, it seems to me, is that there isn’t any shapeshifting in it – the first few verses emphasise repeatedly that Polly was mistaken for a swan, and after that the swan motif disappears: the ghost doesn’t appear in the form of a swan, Polly’s beauty isn’t likened to a swan, nothing.

  3. admin says:

    Fair point Phil although the suggestion from the Candian thesis is that 1799 is the first known printed date, so it already existed in oral tradition and for how long we’ll never know. The use of the gun brings it into the 17thC at least, but the swan maiden motif is certainly much more ancient and then there is the general supernatural aire to the song. I can’t quite see the defence standing up in court myself (although more dubious verdicts have doubtless been reached.) Maybe there was a shooting, even a hunting accident but I still supsect the swan element to be borrowed from myth and overlayed for the purposes of the drama. If anyone can find me a historical link to a trial or more details of the families mentioned I’ll be both grateful and seriously impressed.

  4. Phil says:

    OK, you’re right about it having been in oral tradition before 1799 – apart from anything else, the notes in Marrow Bones (by Steve Gardham and the late Malcolm Douglas) say that the earliest print version goes back to 1780. Marrow Bones also cites a folksong collection from 1873 which commented “it obviously commemorated a tragedy in real life”. I tend to agree (as did Malcolm and Steve) – I think the shapeshifting theme is a 20th-century red herring, laid by Bert Lloyd among others.

  5. Brian says:

    I certainly agree that the paper from the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music is well worth reading in order to understand how the Molly Bawn ballad developed. It tells us how aspects of Irish Folklore were brought into the writing of the ballad.
    What a fantastic mine of information is contained on this website. Every day there is a gem.

  6. Phil says:

    Forgot to say – great performance!

  7. admin says:

    Brian I thought it interesting too and am glad that you’re enjoying this. I guess the article also backs up Phil’s points,certainly the conclusion is shared. I’m quite happy to cede to those more sage than I on the matter, albeit with the mythology looming large over this tale, which surely can’t be entirely coincidental.

  8. Jo Breeze says:

    More about Polly Vaughn from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

    There are 2 records of the exact spelling Polly Vaughn in the Library, both collected in the USA.


    We used the Roud number to cross reference against different titles for the song. When searched on Roud No. 166, this rises to 179 records! The song of course goes under variants of the name (Polly Vaughan, Molly Vaughan, Molly Bawn etc) but also titles such as ‘As Jimmie Went A-Hunting’, ‘Johnny Randle’ and more.


    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.

    There are 7 records of the song when searched under Roud number in the Take 6 archives, collected by George Gardiner and Henry Hammond.

    To find these go to http://library.efdss.org/archives/cgi-bin/search.cgi enter “166” into the first empty field, select ‘Roud number’ from the drop down menu ‘all fields’ and press ‘submit search’.

    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.

    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit http://www.efdss.org/front/access-the-library-online/access-the-library-online/115

    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or library@efdss.org.

  9. admin says:

    By the way folks other admin has just made me aware that Seth Lakeman’s Setting Of The Sun is also the same song.

  10. Phil says:

    Just looked at the podcast on iTunes, and everything’s greyed out – all the individual tracks and the ‘Subscribe Free’ button. Anyone else having this problem?

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    Perhaps not exactly about shape-shifting, but very symbolic (though the swan signified the Muses in Greek tradition and, as a symbol of music, was also dedicated to Apollo, who was said to transform into a swan.)
    Socrates wrote that the swan sung it’s most beautiful song just before it died, leaving us with the phrase “swan song” – perhaps this should have been the last of the 365!

  12. Lenora Rose says:

    While I agree that the shapeshifting itself feels like a more recent interpretation, I suspect the reasoning behind that interpretation is that, in a song where the trial is decided on the basis of a ghost showing up, it’s more comfortable to assume a supernatural beginning as well as a supernatural ending.

    That assumption is based more on modern narrative convention, where readers tend to insist a story be either steadily fantastical or firmly realistic. Folk tradition (Or for that matter, literature pre-mid-20th century) seems to have no such assumptions, but it’s a strong drive these days.

  13. Jon Boden says:

    Can’t see that there’s any more evidence to say this isn’t about shape-shifting than there is to say that it is – it’s all circumstantial so you’ve just got to make your own mind up. Personally I think the song makes a lot more sense (and has a lot more power) if you see Polly as, on some level, a swan-maiden – not least the line ‘her beauty would shine among them like a fountain of snow.’

  14. Bill Vanaver says:

    I’m writing an Appalachian styled symphonic ballet based on the song, and I’ll probably use several of the available melodies. I’m wondering if anyone knows of legends or ballads from outside of English language countries that carry this theme- transformation or otherwise.

  15. Diana says:

    Such a sad tale. I enjoyed hearing Jon singing it.

  16. Hi,

    The earliest printing was 1765– there were four printing before 1799. The 1799 date has nothing to do with the ballad. There are versions that name a swan, otherwise she appears as a mountain/fountain of snow, which is interpreted as a swan, a ghost and other things.

    I do know the analogues from other countries the first is Cephalus and Procris.


  17. Andrew Boden says:

    Thinking back to my teens – long ago in the 60s – I remember a version called Polly Von sung by Peter Paul and Mary (Mary was the one without the beard)

  18. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Ha…a couple of things….(Mary was the one without the beard!)Beeeehaaave young Andrew Boden…where have I heard that surname before?
    Then….I abso-so-blooming-lutely loved the Bryony Ocean video.
    Ref the key in which to start…pity they didn’t have the mandatory ‘Copper Family’ tuning fork secreted about somebody’s personage.
    (I usually hum through to the highest note in the song.. and work backwards to the start
    (Just me then)
    If only they’d have drawn both sets of curtains…we could have had a nice background and stopped worrying as to when the next van was going to drive past the window!
    and finally…… a novelty for really desperate old tossers like me….at around 3minutes 8 seconds into the video….a tiny spider appears in the white space just above Bryony’s left shoulder and ‘descends’ by 3:29! (every folk club has got one!)..Old blokes-I ask yer!

  19. Daft Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Stand by yer beds…my last comment is for tomorrow!!!!!
    yet another senior moment!!Matronnnnnn!!!!

Your Reply

Warning: Undefined variable $user_ID in /customers/a/0/f/afolksongaday.com/httpd.www/wp-content/themes/comment-central/comments.php on line 121