Pete's Blog

Pretty Peggy-O

Here is a webcam video of the traditional song "Pretty Peggy-O." Despite the fact that 'Pretty Peggy-O' is obviously a composite, with no one author, edited and reedited by literally thousands of performers in succession over generations, some constants remain. One is the "tripping down the stairs/Tying back your hairs" verse, which remains a vivid image of heedless beauty all the more powerful for the information left out. This technique underpins post-Folk songwriting to this day, the best example being Bob Dylan. 'Pretty Peggy-O' leaves the listener asking questions the very asking of which provides the 'sense' of the song, questions whose mystery deepens the emotional engagement initiated by the song's gorgeous melody. What happened upstairs? It could have been nothing, it could have been everything, but whatever happened the outcome is tragic, all the more painful for the lack of hard information at the happenings' core. The other question cuts even deeper - who is speaking? With the exception of the "What would your Mama think?" verse, evidently quoting the Captain, the rest of the text, in this version or any others I've heard, has a particular narrator who seems at least somewhat privy to the action. After all he (a junior officer?) or she (a servant in quarters?) sees Polly coming down the stairs. And what is this narrator feeling? It's a sad song, there can no doubt, but is its mood of wistful regret (again, driven by its powerful and profound melody) an expression of jealousy? Of love? And for whom? Each choice the listener makes in interpreting the text (a junior officer desires Polly for himself, a servant desires the Captain for herself, an aging sergeant reflects on the youthful folly of his superior, and so on) raises the emotional stakes higher as options supplant each other. And in the end, because of this lack of specifics, we're left with pure feeling, a deeply affecting mood of disillusion and regret, a perfect abstract for our own inchoate feelings, whatever they are.

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