Other people’s songs: Pretty Peggy-o

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie is a traditional Scottish folk song about a thwarted romance between a soldier and a girl. There is no strict version of the lyrics and the song has multiple variants including Handoms Polly-O, Peggy-O, Fennario, and The Maid of Fife. The Americanized variant is usually called “Peggy-O”.

Here is the earliest known recorded version by Scotsman John Strachan from 1955

Bob’s version appears on his debut album. He starts off the song with the introduction “I’ve been around this whole country but I never yet found Fennario”.

Tony:  Indeed as I understand it Fennerio is a fictional location.  Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia mention it in Dire Wolf:

In the timbers of Fennario
The wolves are running ’round
The winter was so hard and cold, froze 10 feet ’neath the ground…

And here indeed is a recording of Robert Hunter singing the song…  Interestingly this song refers to “going down to Fennerio”.  It seems one always “goes down to” Fennerio, which presumably means it is “down south”.

Aaron: Simon and Garfunkel recorded an arrangement of the song titled “Peggy-O” as part of their 1964 debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.

Tony: Which gives it a totally different perspective, through the delicate guitar and harmonies.  Really, it becomes  a totally different song.

Aaron: The National recorded their version in 2016 for a Grateful Dead tribute album Day of the Dead

Tony: I have never heard this before, not being particularly concerned with the music of the Dead, and I found this a really beautiful, and exquisite arrangement.  In fact, I do love these spacious instrumentations in which the music itself contains (for me at least) a meaning of its own; it is the music that then determines what the lyrics mean.

So, I can see and feel the mythical land, and the use of the slow and utterly controlled build-up through the song, which has been done 100 million times before, still has a sense of originality and meaning.

I guess this is because the whole development of the song in the recording is so carefully handled.  It would have been so easy to fly away, letting it build up more and more.  And yet it is arranged so that “stepping down the stairs” still contains that feel of delicacy and uncertainty.

You’ll notice the change of lyrics from Dylan’s version, but that doesn’t matter at all – there must be hundreds of versions of the song out there, and I can’t imagine anyone ever doing this better.

And the lyrics are different.    With the Dead, the song ends …

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 people in the area-O

Come steppin' down the stairs Pretty Peggy-O
Come steppin' down the stairs Pretty Peggy-O
Come steppin' down the stairs, holding back your yellow hair
Bid a last farewell to your 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 spent the loot he had in the country-O

As we rowed up to Fennario
As we rowed up to Fennario
Our captain fell in love
With a lady like a dove
And he called her by name, Pretty Peggy-O

Which emphasises the point that there are many different versions available.  Bob had either lost part of the lyrics, or didn’t want to do the whole piece, or the Dead decided to add some extra lines.

But most of all what this recording shows is that even with the most basic of lyrics and a simple melody one can create an absolute masterpiece of atmosphere and tension.  Go on, play it again – and well, even if you don’t want to, I do.


Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina
  42. Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles
  43. Other People’s Songs: It hurts me too
  44. Other people’s songs: Take a message to Mary
  45. Other people’s songs: House of the Rising Sun
  46. Other people’s songs: “Days of 49”
  47. Other people’s songs: In my time of dying

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