Pretty Peggy-O


Pretty Peggy-O goes back hundreds of years. Stephen Scobie, the author of Alias: Bob Dylan, posted a history of the song on the newsgroup (RMD). His post sheds some light on the rather cryptic lyrics (the lyrics analysed by Scobie below are from a different version than the one Dylan used – the  lyrics to both versions are below):

The song [originated] in Scotland, as a fairly standard trooper-and-maid story: that is, soldier passes through town, soldier seduces girl, soldier is ordered to leave, girl says hey I’m pregnant, soldier says tough luck and marches away. In some versions the girl follows him, though only for a little while, but in most versions she ends up abandoned.

“Pretty Peggy” (or “The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie” ) is a variation on this theme, in two ways: (1) that the girl actually says No;and (2) that the trooper then dies of a broken heart when he is forced to leave.

In the Scottish versions that I know of, there is no explicit political content, though it is certainly possible that the soldier is English and the girl is Scottish, so there may be some nationalist overtones, but they’re fairly subdued.

It’s only when the song crosses the Atlantic, and becomes “Fennario,” that the “All your cities I will burn” line comes in. In that once the place names had been transposed to the American South (“Fyvie-o” becoming “Fennario,” and “Aberdeen” becoming “Louisiana”), it may have picked up echoes of the Civil War, and especially the burning of Atlanta.

What results, in the American version, is a rather drastically divided version of the soldier’s character. On the one hand, he is cynical and cold-hearted enough to use the threat of broad-scale military action as sexual blackmail for purely personal ends (sleep with me or else I’ll burn down your whole city); on the other hand, he is tender and sensitive enough to die of a broken heart when she rejects him. As for the girl, she is faced with a classic moral problem: is the preservation of her personal purity worth the death and destruction of her whole city? If she can save her city from being burned by sleeping with one soldier, isn’t it her moral duty to do so? How do you balance one woman’s virginity against the death of hundreds of her fellow-citizens?

The Scottish version was much simpler. All he offers her are some guineas, a carriage, and petticoats with “flootsies to the knee” – his appeal is simply to material greed, and it’s easy to admire her for turning him down. The American version ups the stakes, and both characters become much more complex.

Scobie’s comments illustrate how each performer of a song adds his imprint as it passes from one generation to the next. Pretty Peggy-O is a great example of this process. It’s evolved so much that newer versions are almost unrecognizable from the early ones.

Here’s Dylan doing Robert Hunter’s (of Grateful Dead fame) version.

Lyrics – Dylan’s Version

I’ve been around this whole country
But I never yet found Fenneario.

Well, as we marched down, as we marched down
Well, as we marched down to Fennerio’
Well, our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
Her name that she had was Pretty Peggy-O

Well, what will your mother say, what will your mother say
What will your mother say, Pretty Peggy-O
What will your mother say to know you’re going away
You’re never, never, never coming back-io ?

Come a-running down your stairs
Come a-running down your stairs
Come a-running down your stairs, Pretty Peggy-O
Come a-running down your stairs
Combing back your yellow hair
You’re the prettiest darned girl I ever seen-io.

The lieutenant he has gone
The lieutenant he has gone
The lieutenant he has gone, Pretty Peggy-O
The lieutenant he has gone, long gone
He’s a-riding down in Texas with the rodeo.

Well, our captain he is dead, our captain he is dead
Our captain he is dead, Pretty Peggy-O
Well, our captain he is dead, died for a maid
He’s buried somewhere in Louisiana-O.

Scottish Lyrics

There once was a troop o’ Irishdragoons
Cam marching doon through Fyvie-o
And the captain’s fa’en in love wi’ a very bonnie lass
And her name it was ca’d pretty Peggy-o

There’s many a bonnie lass in the Howe o Auchterless
There’s many a bonnie lass in the Garioch
There’s many a bonnie Jean in the streets of Aiberdeen
But the floower o’ them aw lies in Fyvie-o

O come doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy, my dear
Come doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy-o
Come doon the stairs, comb back your yellow hair
Bid a last farewell to your mammy-o

It’s braw, aye it’s braw, a captain’s lady for to be
And it’s braw to be a captain’s lady-o
It’s braw to ride around and to follow the camp
And to ride when your captain he is ready-o

O I’ll give you ribbons, love, and I’ll give you rings
I’ll give you a necklace of amber-o
I’ll give you a silken petticoat with flounces to the knee
If you’ll convey me doon to your chamber-o

What would your mother think if she heard the guineas clink
And saw the haut-boys marching all before you o
O little would she think gin she heard the guineas clink
If I followed a soldier laddie-o

I never did intend a soldier’s lady for to be
A soldier shall never enjoy me-o
I never did intend to gae tae a foreign land
And I never will marry a soldier-o

I’ll drink nae more o your claret wine
I’ll drink nae more o your glasses-o
Tomorrow is the day when we maun ride away
So farewell tae your Fyvie lasses-o

The colonel he cried, mount, boys, mount, boys, mount
The captain, he cried, tarry-o
O tarry yet a while, just another day or twa
Til I see if the bonnie lass will marry-o

Twas in the early morning, when we marched awa
And O but the captain he was sorry-o
The drums they did beat o’er the bonnie braes o’ Gight
And the band played the bonnie lass of Fyvie-o

Long ere we came to Old meldrum toon
We had our captain to carry-o
And long ere we won into the streets of Aberdeen
We had our captain to bury-o

Green grow the birks on bonnie Ythanside
And low lie the lowlands of Fyvie-o
The captain’s name was Ned and he died for a maid
He died for the bonnie lass of Fyvie-o

7 thoughts on “Pretty Peggy-O”

  1. Jockie Broon frae Glesga Toon

    A Scotsman writes, with a minor correction to Mr Scobie’s analysis of “The Bonnie Lass o Fyvie”:

    Scobie is correct that there is no explicit political content, but the soldier is definitely not English – he is an Irish mercenary, engaged in a local war in northeast Scotland.

    His proposal is that she should marry him and become a camp follower, i.e. part of the civilian entourage that accompanied armies in those days.

    As well as trying to appeal to her material greed, he also tries to persuade her that life as a camp follower is good. She is unconvinced, particularly because she is aware that after this campaign he will be joining other campaigns in other countries.

    Source: it’s all in the lyrics above.

  2. Pingback: Never Ending Tour, 1996, part 4. In the House of Blues forever. | Untold Dylan

  3. There were 2 things that helped me mostly keep my sanity when I was an Air Force Medic in Mississippis in the mid-60’s:
    *Catch-22. it made me understand that if everyone around me is crazy and I am not, and since madness is culturally defined, then by definition I am crazy an everyone else is sane.
    *The Docs, nurses and medics on the crew. They were really smart, worked and played hard, and were fun to hang with. We had one rule: Don’t fuck with or ever hurt a patient. Do anything you want but don’t ever hurt a patient. I asked one doc: What made you join the AF? He replied: I was drafted.
    *The music of Bob Dylan. The radio stations signed off playing Dixie. I listed to all of Dylan with a few other guys in my room. We played it low so no one would hear. We were crazy in a mad world. But we survived, mostly. The hate around us was palpable. Like going to a Trump rally. Listening to Dylan made us feel sane.

    1. thank you for your service, david.
      im sure he would consider it an honor that he helped you keep your sanity.
      please come listen to bob dylan with me anytime you happen to be in new hampshire.

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