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  • Dan Houghton

Notes on Hunting Season 9th December 2020

I remember hearing a song many years ago which I, in my juvenile innocence, assumed to concern two of the thickest people on the face of the earth. The essential plot was that a rather trigger happy young man by the name of Johnny, or perhaps Jimmy, was out looking for things to shoot at near dusk. Apparently he did not realise that as light levels decrease the human eye has difficulty discerning certain shapes and colours. It so happened that his girlfriend, Molly, or Polly, was also to be found in the woods that night and she still wrapped in her white apron, for some bizarre reason. Now white does stand out in the dark and our Johnny, thinking that something five feet plus tall, appearing to weigh roughly eight stone and that was abroad in the woods at twilight might be a swan, squeezed off a couple of rounds with grim and deadly accuracy, and dropped Molly like a bad habit.

The title of the song as I first heard it was Molly Vaughan and, never having seen it written, I had always assumed that Vaughan was a family name. Furthermore, having arrived at the conclusion that the song was an example of Darwinism in action I thought nothing more of it for the next twenty years. Certainly I became aware that there were other versions of this song from England, America, Canada and Australia, variously under the titles, Molly Vaughn, Polly Vaughan, Polly Bawn etc. but, again, I never paid them much heed. Then one day about a year ago I was looking at the back of an Alison Kraus album and actually saw the name printed as Molly Bawn (Bán).

Now this changed everything. I had been dimly aware that the song might have Irish connections but seeing it printed so blatantly with the Irish spelling ‘Bán’ withdrew any doubt. Bán, in Gaelic, means white and, thus, is an epithet, not a surname, as I had originally assumed. Since Molly and indeed Polly are feminine names a following adjective should, in Gaelic, be lenited making it Bhán which would be pronounced in manner almost identical to an Anglo-American pronunciation of Vaughan. This, at any rate, would explain the B/V multiplicity of titles. More than that, though, the content of the song now makes perfect sense as a metaphor. Bán, or white, is, at least, in most European cultures, a colour of purity and innocence and swans, notably in Gaelic mythology, are considered to be noble and pure birds (cf. the legend of The Fate of the Children of Lîr).

For comparison and contrast, there is a very popular French and Quebecoise folk-song which uses virtually identical imagery to convey its message. It has various different refrains depending on version, but the relevant verses covey the same message:


Derière chez nous y’a’t un étang


Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant


Le fils du Roi s’en va chassant


Avec son beau fusil d’argent


Visa le noir tua le blanc...


Behind our house there was a pond


Where on three ducks went swimming


The King’s son went hunting


With his beautiful silver rifle


He took aim at the black one but killed the white


There is more to this song and it becomes even more blatantly sexual, including a mention of actual reproduction, by the end. In these five verses, however, we have the same imagery if not exactly the same story as that of Molly Bhán save that in the French, we use ducks rather than swans. It would seem, based on the cultural references to purity, phallic symbols etc, that the shooting and killing of the white duck or swan is symbolic of taking a young woman’s virginity rather than an actual account of a comedically ridiculous hunting mishap. Our darling Molly was not killed in the stop–breathing–and–fall–over sense; it was, in fact, the innocence of her childhood that took the hit and no matter how consensual the act of loosing one’s virginity may be it is at the very least a rite of passage into “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns…”, and not dissimilar to death. Young Jimmy, or Johnny or whatever, like the French King’s son, was, in his turn, not firing bullets from his ’beautiful silver rifle’, but rather rounds of something far more dangerous.

In the end it was most likely sneaky sex and not poaching that lured these two love birds out in the woods that fateful evening. They would certainly not be the first young couple to try it "duckie style" and were, evidently, not the last. Vive la race humaine!


Below are several different versions of the song:


Polly Vaughan

Now come all ye hunters who follow the gun


Beware of your shooting at the setting of the sun


For Polly’s own true love he shot in the dark


But oh and alas Polly Vaughan was his mark.


Chorus:

For she’d her apron wrapped about her and he took her for a swan


Oh and alas it was she Polly Vaughan


He ran up beside her and saw that it was she


Cried, “Polly oh Polly have I killed thee?"


He lifted up her head and saw that she was dead


And a fountain of tears for his true love he shed.


In the middle of the night Polly Vaughan did appear


Cried, “Jimmy oh Jimmy you must have no fear;


Just tell them you were hunting when your trial day has come


And you won’t be convicted for what you have done."


In the middle of the trial Polly Vaughan did appear


Crying, “Uncle oh Uncle Jimmy Randall must go clear”


The lawyers and the judges stood around in a row


In the middle Polly Vaughan like some fountain of snow



V’là le bon vent


Derière chez nous y’a’t un étang (bis.)


Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant


Refrain:

V’là le bon vent, le joli joli vent


V’là le bon vent, ma mie m’appele


V’là le bon vent, le joli joli vent


V’là le bon vent ma mie m’attend


Trois beaux canards s’y vont baignant(bis.)


Le fils du Roi s’en va chassant


Refain
: Le fils du Roi...etc.


Avec son beau fusil d’argent


Visa le noir tua le blanc


O fils du Roi tu es méchant


D'avoir tué mon canard blanc


Par dessous l'aile il perd son sang


Et de ces yeux des diamants


Et de son bec l'or et l'argent


Et tous ces plumes s'en vont au vent


Nous nous ferrons un lit de camp


Nous coucherons tous deux dedans


Et nous aurons des p’tits enfants


Behind our house there was a pond


Where on three ducks went swimming


The King’s son went hunting


With his beautiful silver rifle


He took aim at the black one but killed the white


O son of the king you are a bad person


For having killed my white duck


It bleeds from under its wing


And from its eyes fall diamonds


And from its beak, gold and silver


And all its feathers scattered on the wind


And we will make ourselves a camp bed


We will lie in it together
And we will have children.


Molly Bán

Come all ye brave heroes who handle a gun


Beware of night ramblin’ by the setting of the sun.


And be aware of an accident that happened of late


To young Molly Bán and sad was her fate.


She was going to her uncle’s when a shower came on


She went ’neath a green bush the shower to shun.


With her apron ’around her he took her for a swan


It’s a sob and a sigh it was Oh! Oh! Molly Bán.


He quickly ran to her and saw that she was dead


And it’s many’s a salt tear on her bosom he shed


He went home to his father with his gun in his hand


Crying father, dear father, I have shot Molly Bán.


I have shot that young colleen I have taken the life


Of the one I intended to take for my wife.


Oh Johnny, young Johnny, do not run away


Don’t you leave your own country till your trial day.


Don’t you leave your own country till your trial comes on


For you’ll never be convicted for the loss of a swan.


The night before Molly’s funeral her ghost it did appear


Saying mother, dear mother, young Johnny he’s clear.


I was going to my uncle when a shower came on


But tell him he’s forgiven by his own Molly Bán.


The girls in this country they are all very glad


Since the pride of Glen Allen, Molly Bán is now dead.


The girls in this country stand them all in a row


Molly Bán would shine above them like a mountain of snow.


From the singing of Norman Kennedy


Fowl Jimmy(?)

So come all you bold sportsmen


That carry a gun


For I will have you go home


By the light of the sun


For young Jimmy was a-fowling,


Was a-fowling alone


When he shot his own truelove


In the from of a swan.


So then first he went to her,


And found it was she


He was shaking and tremb-e-ling,


His eyes scarce could see


So now you are dead, love,


And your sorrows are o’er


Fare thee well, my dear Polly,


I shall see you no more.


Then home went young Jimmy


With his dog and his gun


Saying: Uncle, dear Uncle,


Have you heard what I’ve done?


Curséd be this old gunsmith


That made me this gun


For I’ve shot my own true-love


In the form of a swan.


Then out came bold Uncle


With his locks hanging grey


Saying, Jimmy, dear Jimmy,


Don’t you run away


Don’t you leave your own count-e-rie


Till the trial comes on


For you ne’er shall be hanged


For the crime you have done.


Now the trial came on and


Pretty Polly appeared


Saying, Uncle, dear Uncle,


Let Jimmy go clear


For my apron was wrapped round me


When he took me for a swan


And his poor heart lay bleeding


For Polly his own.


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