Pretty Polly and False William

A woman and her parrot.
Unknown artist 16th Century

This is not exactly the Pretty Polly you know. This version was collected by folklorist/singer Paul Clayton and recorded on 'Songs of the Cumberland Mountains' (Folkways). It is very close to Child ballad #4, 'Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight' But you can hear the better known Pretty Polly in the tune and some verses. The tattle-tale bird from 'Henry Lee' shows up at the end. There's a lot of 'Omi Wise here too, but this time intended victim turns the tables and dunks her false lover instead. These songs cross fertilize so much, there's no telling which preceeded another.

The banjo arrangement is my own, using one of Peggy Seeger's dulcimer tunings that I learned from her Banjo method book 'Five String Banjo America Folk Styles' - 1960 .


Rise up, rise up, Pretty Polly, he said,
And come go along with me,
And I will take you to the salt sea side
And it’s there I'll marry thee.

She mounted herself on a milk white steed,
Sweet William on a dapple grey,
And they rode straightway to the salt sea side
Three hours before it was day.

Light down, light down, Pretty Polly, he said
Light down, light down, said he,
For the sixteen daughters I have drowned here
And the seventeenth you shall be.

Go take your knife and cut those nettles
That stand so close to the brim,
For they will tangle in my long yellow hair
And stain my snowy, white skin.

He took his knife for to cut those nettles
That stood so close to the brim,
And then pretty Polly with her pale full eyes,
She tossed false William in.

Lie there, lie there, you falsehearted rake,
Lie there in the stead of me,
You said the sixteen daughters you had drowned here,
And the seventeenth you shall be.

She mounted herself on a milk white steed,
A-leading the dapple grey,
And she rode straight back to her old father's house
One hour before it was day.

The little parrot bird met her at the gate
With its clattering tongue did say:
Pretty Polly, pretty Polly, where have you been
That you walk so long before day.

Hush up, hush up, my little parrot bird,
And tell no tales on me,
And your cage shall be made of a yellow beaten gold,
And hung on an ivory tree.