Remembering the Old Songs:

Pretty Polly (Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight)

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, November 1996)

Last month we had a song about betrayal, murder, and a talking bird. Chances are, you thought there couldn't be any more songs on that theme.

But the world of traditional music never ceases to surprise us. There is, for instance, The Bonny Birdy (Child #82), about a bird that catches a girl dallying and hurries to tell her husband to murder her.

The Bonny Birdie, however, had a very brief run in tradition; only one verifiable text is known, and no tunes at all.

Not so with Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight (Child #4). This bit of turnabout on the Bluebeard legend is perhaps the most widespread of all ballads in Europe. Child prints only eight texts, but has multiple versions of most of them. He also finds analogues from Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany -- even Italy and Portugal. (Some scholars posit a connection with the story of Judith and Holofernes in the Greek Old Testament, but that's pushing things.) Bertrand Bronson prints a hundred and forty-four tunes; I suspect that at least three hundred texts have now been collected.

In the U.S. the piece is not quite as common as in Britain, but it has been collected dozens of times and in all parts of the country except the far west. To tell all the variations is simply beyond the scope of this article. (As well as beyond the skills of the article's author.)

As so often happens, I learned this song in pieces; the result is not purely traditional. I know the source of the tune, but it was a revival singer. The text I learned only in fragments, so to get a complete version I collated it with the "B" text in Randolph's Ozark Folksongs to get a reasonably complete text. (My apologies to the traditionalists.) The combined version tells very nearly the full story (though I had to chop off two verses at the end to make it fit; they describe the parrot's lies to the girl's parents).

The reason I love this particular setting so much is the tune. The scale is minor (well, Dorian), and you can play it with minor chords (use Dm for all the D chords in the arrangement below). But that's no fun. The piece just begs to be played over major chords such as I've shown below.

I also like the fact that it's the girl, not the male villain, who comes out on top in the end.

This is one of the few old ballads that I think would sound good if done in bluegrass style. (Hint, hint....) Try it; I'm sure you'll love it.
Lady Isabel

Complete Lyrics:

And he's followed her up and he's followed her down
And it's into the room where she lay.
She hadn't the strength for to flee from his arms
Nor the tongue for to answer him nay.

"Go bring me some of your father's gold
And some of your mother's fee,
And we'll go to the north country
And there we'll married be."

She mounted on the fine white horse
And he on the dapple gray,
They rode till they came to the sweet water side
Three long hours 'fore day.

"Light off, light off, my pretty fair maid,
Light off, light off," said he,
"For six king's daughters have I drowned here
And the seventh you shall be!

"Take off, take off, your gay silk gown
And hang it on the tree,
For it is too fine and it costs too much
To rot in the salt salt sea."

"Turn your back, turn your back, you false young man,
And turn your face to the tree,
It is not right that a villain like you
A naked woman should see."

As he turned around and looked around
To view the leaves on the tree,
With all the strength this fair maid had,
She threw him into the sea.

"Lie there, lie there, you false young man,
Lie there in the room of me;
If six king's daughters you have drowned here,
The seventh has drowned thee!"

Then she's mounted up on the fine white horse,
And she led the dapple gray;
She rode till she came to her father's gate
'Twas just one hour 'fore day.

Then up spoke her pretty Polly bird
In the chamber where she lay,
Saying, "Pretty Polly, what makes you wake
So long before it is day?"

"Lie still, lie still, my pretty Polly,
And don't you tell tales on me,
And your cage shall be made of the merry green gold
And the door of the best ivory."


The sheer number of variants of this song makes a list of versions impractical. The basic versions, plus an extensive discussion, are found in Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" is #4.

The largest set of texts and tunes are found in Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.

For the text I collated to produce this text, see Volume 1 of Vance Randolph's Ozark Folksongs. "Lady Isabel" is item #2, and I used the "B" text.

For a fuller list of sources and known versions, I can only suggest that you consult Bronson or the items listed in the Ballad Index (see the Links page).


[Note: We send each other these articles before they're published. I responded to Bob's article on Lady Isabel with this commentary. It doesn't have much to do with the article per se, but I'm reprinting it here anyway, because it's my website and I can put in whatever I please.]

Bob, in response to your comments about Scandinavian relatives to Young Hunting, and worldwide relatives to Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, I'd like to get a little long-winded about ballad relationships, if you don't mind. Child and his cohorts were undoubtedly over-eager to note relationships between ballads in different languages, but they were, after all, 19th century academics in the liberal arts: that's how they made their livings. Then, as now, a long bibliography impressed immensely.

Furthermore, for all the Latinate words we use on a daily basis, the heart of English, the good old one-syllable Anglo-Saxonisms, are basically variants of the other Nordic languages*. One would think that, with Danish and Norwegian invasions of Britain actually turning into settlements, there would surely be transfers of ballads.

I don't believe they were direct translations, however. From limited experience in trying to translate some Swedish poetry into English (maddened by Robert Bly, who does such an execrable job of it), I believe that the only authentic way is to understand its deep meaning in the first language, then re-compose it completely in the second language. If the "translation" is successful, it will have a similar deep meaning afterwards, even though it might not be literally close (there are lots of translators who disagree with me here). This is because the flavor is easy to lose, and also because it is so easy to be led astray by false similarities if you're not intimately familiar with both languages (alas, I can do better than Bly, but I still don't know Swedish well enough to do justice to the poems). For example, in his commentaries on the Swedish versions of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, Child translates en man ifran fremmande land as "an outlandish man." That's sort of what the words literally mean (outlandish = an outlander), but the correct non-poetic translation is "a man from a foreign country," because that's how an English-speaking person would say it. Unfortunately, that line doesn't scan well in a ballad.

I read somewhere (I don't remember where) that one of the basic differences between folk-tales and ballads is that a skillful storyteller needs only to remember the plot line in order to reconstruct the story, while the ballad-singer must remember the words almost exactly, due to the demands of meter and rhyme. A talented ballad singer, of course, could re-compose a ballad from only plot information, but would not do it on a regular basis, as a tale-teller might. Thus, the relationship between a Scandinavian ballad and a similar English ballad is probably due to its being broken down to its basic story, then re-composed in the new language. This re-composition could even account for two versions in English that are very different from each other. Stith Thompson's Motif-Index approach is probably a more informative one to describe the process that takes place here, rather than to describe them both as the same ballad.

Most of the old stories, though, whether or not they were sung, were passed on in oral tradition for some time before being written. Many of the old testament stories (such as Noah and his boat) were ancient in Sumerian times: Noah appears as a guide to the correct way to approach the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Homer's tales of the battle of Troy and how hard it is for even a well-meaning person to make it home on time were recognized as traditional at the time they were transcribed. Blindness of the author is here a symbol for pre-literacy. Similarly, medieval writers like Chreten de Troyes, who started writing Parzival, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, who finished it, were piecing together stories that were floating around Europe during the 12th century. Undoubtedly, the exposure of Europeans to exotic cultures during the crusades brought some new stories back to Europe. A clue to this idea is that, in Parzival, the Christian Parzival and the Muslim Feirefiz, after fiercely fighting each other, discover that they have the same father.

Judith may be bad history, but I'm not sure she's any worse than official histories. Another digression: my father-in-law, Harold Shulman (1894-1980) was a dentist in New York City in the 1920's.He heard the siren song of Paris, and left the bourgeois city behind, counting on dividends from his investments to keep him living in style. When the 1929 crash came, he had just married, and needed an income to make up for the failed stocks. In order to practice dentistry in France, a foreigner had to pass tests in French on all academic and technical subjects, beginning with the first grade. He had a good tutor, however, and had no particular problems with mathematics or the dental subjects. The hardest test for him was in American History, because there was absolutely no relationship to what he had learned in America. There are cultural reasons why the American version of American history is not the same as the French version. Similarly, the Jews must have had a very good reason to pass on the story of Judith, true or not.

If you believe in the process of translation from song into plot and back into song again, it is just possible that Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight are distantly related to Judith and Holofernes. The dutch ballad of Lord Halwyn, with his severed head, seems even closer. Joseph Campbell as a young man believed in Jung's Universal Unconscious theory, and therefore that the similar stories were independently generated. As an old man, he concluded that the similarities worldwide of some stories were just too strong to be unconscious -- they must be due to cultural diffusion. I don't know whether to vote for the young Campbell or the old Campbell. On one level, the Judith story (saving your people) is not at all like the Lady Isabel story (saving your own life). On another level, they teach identical lessons: even the most powerless can conquer the most powerful if impeccable timing is used. That's something all of our children should learn, and not just to the extent of giving them Martial Arts lessons.

* Next time you're in a used book store, look around for The Story of English, by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil [Viking, 1986]. It was published as a companion to a PBS television series on English, and it has lots of great erudite information in it. It turns out that you can tell a lot about the extent of Scandinavian invasions into Britain by looking at a map and noting villages that end in -by, such as Appleby, Derby, or Rugby. They're all Nordic towns: a by is a small settlement (usually of the serfs that farmed the land of a manor) in Scandinavian.

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