An odd and rather creepy song: George Collins kisses a ‘pretty maid’; George Collins dies; his girlfriend dies, and so do five other women. The end.
Bert Lloyd argued, I think correctly, that Child 42 (Clerk Colvill) and 85 (Lady Alice) are fuller versions of the first and second halves of this song, which in turn implies that this song once existed in a much longer and more detailed form. What we can draw from Clerk Colvill is that the ‘pretty maid’ was no such thing, but a malevolent mermaid or other supernatural being, who first enchanted and then poisoned the central character. Incidentally, I don’t think the text gives much support to the feminist reading mentioned on this Mudcat thread, according to which Clerk Colvill was cheating on both his wife and the mermaid, who was only taking a justified, if slightly excessive, revenge. There’s not a lot of sisterly solidarity in the old ballads, and where it does exist it doesn’t tend to include mermaids. Why everyone around Clerk Colvill or George Collins promptly drops dead is less clear; this may have been a later addition, in the general spirit of having people die for love. (Or, as Jack suggested on that thread, there may have been a subtext involving syphilis.)
I learned this from Tony Rose’s recording on Bare Bones. Given the subject matter, I wasn’t very happy with the lilting, dreamy melody Tony Rose used – it works well for him, but I found the contrast between what I was singing and how I was singing it too uncomfortable. I used the melody in Classic English Folk Songs (formerly the EBPFS), but changed the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8, added a repeat and put in a mixolydian flattened seventh to make it slightly darker (it’s the first syllable of ‘pretty’ in ‘fair pretty maid’). There’s something a bit nagging and uncomfortable about all the instrumental tracks I’ve used here – melodica, drone and an old Generation high-G whistle; again, this felt right for the song. (This is folk song, lad – nobody ever said it would be fun.)