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The three Pollys

July 25th, 2008 (02:21 pm)
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Adding together the play counts for the versions on Fairport Live Convention and Nine, the mid-1970s incarnation of Fairport Convention's Polly on the Shore has a claim to be one of the most-played songs on my computer.. As sung by Trevor Lucas, it's a saga of lost hopes and constrainment, and though 'empressed' in this case probably simply means recruitment the listener is encouraged to think of the narrator as kidnapped by the privateer captain and forced to fight and rob other ships while hoping to return to his Polly on the shore, though he can’t be sure whether she is faithful.

As an aside, Lucas sings ‘galliant ship’ – ‘galliant’ merging ‘gallant’ and ‘valiant’ while echoing ‘galleon’, a suitable allusion for a song which is probably set on the Spanish Main. In the repertoire of the present-day Fairport, Simon Nicol sings ‘gallant ship’. It’s more correct, but it loses something.

I’ve thought of Kate Rusby’s Polly as an answer to Polly on the Shore. In this, Polly meets and falls in love with a sailor who promises to marry her, but he then goes to sea and she stays faithful throughout seven years of war, despite ardent courtship from a strange man. She rebuffs his wish to take her away and banish her tears, but of course he turns out to be “your young sailor, who’s come home from the sea.” While this says little for Polly’s memory, we’ve already been assured that she is “kind… pretty and she is fine,” and her lack of observation probably means that she has been fixated on her heart, given that there is no mention that her suitor has been disfigured. There are no shades of Martin Guerre in the lyrics, either. The narrator of Fairport’s Polly on the Shore is the crewman of an unscrupulous privateer vessel, but in other versions – such as those recorded by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick on Prince Heathen, and Trees on On the Shore - he’s on a man of war, and so could be Polly’s sailor, who is presumably in the Royal Navy. I’ve long imagined that the narrator of Polly on the Shore recovered from bleeding on the deck, and came home to find that Polly’s eye hadn’t roved after all.

This being said, Rusby’s Polly’s sailor declares that he wants to dance with her on their wedding day – a public affirmation of love – while Fairport’s Polly…’s sailor thinks of being alone with her. This is suggestive of sexual longing, though again we have a traditional contrast of male and female aspirations here.

Alternatively, this could open the door to another Polly on the Shore, found on the internet, and written by Lester Simpson. I’ve not heard this yet, but this Polly is a survivor in a brutal world. It’s conceivable (despite the implication that we are in a different time period through the mention of Yokohama) that this is the girl the narrator of the traditional Polly on the Shore is dreaming of, and that her roving eye is the ruthless opportunism of a woman who has been brought up to expect nothing else.