Pretty Peggy-O

‘Peggy-O’ was originally a Scottish ballad, ‘The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie,’ first published in broadsides of the 1790s/early 1800s rewritten, distributed and adapted hundreds of times until the origins of the tune were forgotten.  The first American ‘Pretty Peggy-O’ lyric was printed in 1917, altered from the older ballad.  In its earliest written form, it was an Irish dance tune called ‘Pretty Peggy of Darby’.  That tune was popularized and given lyrics in a comic opera in London in the 1780s.  By the time it wandered over to America, the lyrics kept changing as the song was shortened.  ‘The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie’ is a Scottish folk song about a thwarted romance between a soldier and a girl.  Like many folk songs, the authorship is unattributed, there is no strict version of the lyrics, and it is also known by a variety of other names, the most common of them being ‘Peggy-O’, ‘Fennario’, and ‘The Maid of Fife’.  The first known recordings of this song were made in isolated communities, at first by anthropologists interested in artifacts of thriving “folk” communities, and later by musicologists hoping to preserve the vestiges of a quickly disappearing culture of oral transmission.

Original versions of this song tell the story of a soldier who passes through town, seduces a girl, then he is ordered to leave, but not before learning that the girl is pregnant, however the soldier says tough luck and marches away.  Starting in the ‘60s the song became widespread.  It was apparently an obscure song for most of the last century, first recorded by John Strachan in 1951, a Scottish farmer and singer of Bothy Ballads.  The first commercial release of “Peggy” in the U.S. is from Tossi Aaron on her 1960 debut album Tossi Sings Folk Songs and Ballads.

The Bob Dylan version of this song appeared on his eponymous debut album in 1962, under the title ‘Pretty Peggy-O’.  In the Dylan version of this song, he brings up a dead lieutenant and the captain is also dead.  Joan Baez recorded this song under the title of ‘Fennario’ in 1963 and Simon and Garfunkel also recorded this in 1964.  This song has mostly been performed in the UK and the U.S., in different accents, dialects, modes, and meters, under different titles, and with varying rhyme schemes and verse lengths.  In the early 1960s, folk revivals on both continents created a commercial market for folk songs, and the variants of “Peggy” that these folklorists collected became popular source material for folk artists.

In the Grateful Dead version of this song, the girl faces a moral problem concerning whether the preservation of her personal purity is worth the death and destruction of her whole city.  Peggy says that she would like to marry William, if only he had more money, but William threatens to burn all of her cities to the ground.  The Dead’s source could have been any number of folk singers, but Jerry Garcia said that he did it because of the Joan Baez version.  ‘Pretty Peggy O’ was recorded by a young Bob Dylan on his 1962 eponymous debut album.  The Grateful Dead never released this song on a studio album, but they performed it live 265 times between 1973 and 1995.

As we rode out to Fennario
As we rode out to Fennario
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And he called her by name pretty Peggy-O

Will you marry me, pretty Peggy-O
Will you marry me, pretty Peggy-O
If you will marry me, I will set your cities free
And free all the ladies in the area-O

I would marry you, sweet William-O
I would marry you, sweet William-O
I would marry you, but your guineas are too few
And I fear my mama would be angry-O

What would your mama think, pretty Peggy-O
What would your mama think, pretty Peggy-O
What would your mama think if she heard my guineas clink
And saw me marching at the head of my soldiers-O

If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O
If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O
If ever I return, all your cities I will burn
Destroy all the ladies in the area-O

Come stepping down the stairs, pretty Peggy-O
Come stepping down the stairs, pretty Peggy-O
Come stepping down the stairs, combing back your yellow hair
And bid a last farewell to young William-O

Sweet William he is dead, pretty Peggy-O
Sweet William he is dead, pretty Peggy-O
Sweet William he is dead, and he died for a maid
And he’s buried in the Louisiana country-O

As we rode out to Fennario
As we rode out to Fennario
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And he called her by name pretty Peggy-O

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is to choose a song that starts with either the letter P or G.

10 thoughts on “Pretty Peggy-O

  1. Interesting interpretation by the different artists and how the song has taken on many life meanings. A sounds like a completely different song between Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Grateful Dead. Thanks for the history lesson! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim, Happy New Year to you! I hope you are well. I am sorry that I disappeared, life got busy. But, I really enjoyed the Grateful Dead’s take in 1994, it seems more modern. But, I do also like Simon and Garfunkel’s cover as I just love their music. Take care!

    Liked by 1 person

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