Pretty Mary: Bob Dylan nips back to a PPM song, and his own Farewell.

By Tony Attwood

“Pretty Mary” on disc six of the Complete Basement Tapes is credited as a song composed by Bob Dylan, and the passing comments I have read about the song on Rolling Stone and elsewhere no one question that.  Neither does the writer of the Haikus.

So I could be putting my head in a noose here, but it seems to me to be the same melody that Bob used for “Farewell Angelina” – although I have just noticed that I got so carried away promoting a particular version of the song that in my review I forgot to go back to the origins of that song.

In fact as far as I can see the basics of this song were written by Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963; you can try this version of Pretty Mary by Peter Paul and Mary if you want to hear the comparison.    Farewell Angelina which was written two years later.  The Basement song came in 1967.

Of course there are differences, but in essence they are all using the same basic melody, and the fact that the PPM song is called “Pretty Mary”, exactly as Dylan’s song is, is a bit of a giveaway too.

Here are the lyrics to the PPM song – it really is rather beautiful

My horses ain’t hungry, they won’t eat your hay,
So fare thee well darlin’ I’m goin’ away.

Your parents don’t like me, they say I’m too poor,
They say I’m not worthy to enter your door.

Pretty Mary, Pretty Mary, would you think me unkind,
If I were to see you and tell you my mind?
As sure as the dew drops fall on the green corn.
Last night I was with her, tonight I am gone.

My horses ain’t hungry, they won’t eat your hay,
So fare thee well darlin’ I’m goin away.

It is of course quite possible that the melody goes back into the realm of early English folk music, but I can’t for the moment place a particular song that from earlier days that has this melody.

The lyrics on the Basement track are however completely new, and provide us with a real challenge.  I’ve done my best and then had a look at the Haiku writer’s version and corrected some of the more awful errors I’ve made.

Pretty Mary pretty Mary
With the pink, white and gold
Will you tell me pretty Mary
Where do you ? gold

But I’m coming with the midnight
And the cold winds in twilight
And then a dream of the world
Of Pretty Mary tonight

Pretty Mary, don’t be lonely
Pretty Mary, don’t be cruel
You’re my only destination
And I’m coming for you

I’m been from the devil
On my bed one year
She’ll call them and backwards 
But you know that your dear
Now the cold winds to the crossroads
To the valleys go southwards
And I think you’re good looking, pretty Mary

Pretty Mary, don’t be lonely
Pretty Mary, don’t be cruel
You’re my only destination
And I’m coming for you

I wish that my whole life
On the Bible  so real
How she come and get me down
With the world at my heel
But I know it’s all right
If I bring you home tonight
I’ll at least be with pretty Mary.

Pretty Mary, don’t be lonely
Pretty Mary, don’t be cool
You’re my only destination
And I’m coming for you

I can’t imagine it is a song anyone will want to play more than once – twice at the most – unless you are taking on the challenge of deciphering the lyrics.  Besides Bob himself took it as far as it could possibly go with Farewell Angelina.

And to be completely fair to Bob, he never intended that this track would be released, and I suspect when he wrote it and improvised the lyrics he’d probably completely forgotten about the original by Peter Paul and Mary.

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  1. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Dylan nicked this song from Peter, Paul and Mary. Their “Pretty Mary” is an adaptation of “The Wagoner’s Lad,” a song that he would have known in many other versions, and the melody is not original to them. It is quite possible he was thinking of their version, though; the girl’s name is usually Polly, not Mary.

    The melody is that of a common variant of “The Wagoner’s Lad,” “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.” Another song with a similar melody is “Rye Whiskey,” which, in various versions, is also known as “Moonshiner” and “Jack of Diamonds.” “Farewell Angelina” is actually based on “Farewell to Tarwathie”; “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is too, I think, though the meter makes it harder to recognize. The first part of that melody is indeed pretty much the same as “My Horses Ain’t Hungry.”

    There are many Dylan connections here; it’s actually a little dizzying. He performed “The Wagoner’s Lad” himself, many years later, though not to the melody we’re talking about. He also, of course, recorded “Moonshiner”—though again, not to that melody. His liner notes to [i]Another Side of Bob Dylan[/i] include a poem based on “Jack of Diamonds”—but the version he was thinking of seems to have been Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, which uses still another melody: that of “Reuben’s Train,” or “Nine Hundred Miles,” which Dylan borrowed for two early songs, “John Brown” and “I Was Young when I Left Home”; he also recorded two quite different versions of “Nine Hundred Miles” during the Basement Tapes sessions. “Rye Whiskey” et al. borrows verses from “The Wagoner’s Lad” et al., including “I’ll eat when I’m hungry, I’ll drink when I’m dry”—which of course shows up again in “Standing in the Doorway.”

    Even after all of that, “Pretty Mary” is still just a throwaway, I guess. But I’ve listened to it a lot more than once or twice. It’s catchy as hell.

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