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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.


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


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

: 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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