Annotations and Interpretations: Peggy-O

It’s a timeless song. It pulls from tradition, a Scottish ballad, long sang and brought here by immigrants. Over time, it’s meaning and lyrics have changed, whether to simply fit the canvas of the American language or to make the meter’s more approachable to singers. It has been sung by a wide berth of singers, from Bob Dylan, to Joan Baez, to Simon and Garfunkel.
Take a look at the original lyrics. You will see they differ much more from the Grateful Dead’s. You will see it is truly awash in the original Scot language, with much more emphasis on the Scottish slang than the song we commonly know. It is sprinkled throughout with references to dragoons, Irish towns and cities, and much more rooted in traditional nomenclature than the adapted American versions.
There once was a troop o' Irish dragoons
Cam marching doon through Fyvie-o
And the captain's fa'en in love wi' a very bonnie lass
And her name it was ca'd pretty Peggy-o
There's many a bonnie lass in the Howe o Auchterless
There's many a bonnie lass in the Garioch
There's many a bonnie Jean in the streets of Aiberdeen
But the floower o' them aw lies in Fyvie-o
O come doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy, my dear
Come doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy-o
Come doon the stairs, comb back your yellow hair
Bid a last farewell to your mammy-o
It's braw, aye it's braw, a captain's lady for to be
And it's braw to be a captain's lady-o
It's braw to ride around and to follow the camp
And to ride when your captain he is ready-o
O I'll give you ribbons, love, and I'll give you rings
I'll give you a necklace of amber-o
I'll give you a silken petticoat with flounces to the knee
If you'll convey me doon to your chamber-o
What would your mother think if she heard the guineas clink
And saw the haut-boys marching all before you o
O little would she think gin she heard the guineas clink
If I followed a soldier laddie-o
I never did intend a soldier's lady for to be
A soldier shall never enjoy me-o
I never did intend to gae tae a foreign land
And I never will marry a soldier-o
I'll drink nae more o your claret wine
I'll drink nae more o your glasses-o
Tomorrow is the day when we maun ride away
So farewell tae your Fyvie lasses-o
The colonel he cried, mount, boys, mount, boys, mount
The captain, he cried, tarry-o
O tarry yet a while, just another day or twa
Til I see if the bonnie lass will marry-o
Twas in the early morning, when we marched awa
And O but the captain he was sorry-o
The drums they did beat o'er the bonnie braes o' Gight
And the band played the bonnie lass of Fyvie-o
Long ere we came to Oldmeldrum toon
We had our captain to carry-o
And long ere we won into the streets of Aberdeen
We had our captain to bury-o
Green grow the birks on bonnie Ythanside
And low lie the lowlands of Fyvie-o
The captain's name was Ned and he died for a maid
He died for the bonnie lass of Fyvie-o
Though the lyrics have changed, the idea of the song has not. Similar to Looks Like Rain, it’s another story of heartbreak; that of a soldier’s. The traditional version seems to pull from the 1600’s, with the capture of Fyvie Castle by a Royalist army (thought, not dragoons, a large portion of the army was Irish). Regardless, since the songs conception, it has been featured and played widely in a variety of ways, with the Dead giving it it’s own special twist. Feel free to contrast and compare the differences of the Dead’s lyrics to the original, and how the story changes so subtly. Also, keep in mind, that this song being a traditional one, had it’s lyrics changed every now and then when the Dead performed it. Jerry would sometimes sing “dollars” instead of “guineas,” sometimes “free all the people,” and not “free all the ladies,” and so on.
As we rode out to Fennario
As we rode out to Fennario
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And he called her by name pretty Peggy-O
The song begins with a soldier marching with his men down to Fennario. Their mission is unstated, but what is made clear is that his captain falls in love with a lady; a lady named Peggy-O. There’s an interesting line, where the captain falls in love, “with a lady live a dove.” It’s a humble little simile, comparing this woman to a beautiful, white, innocent bird. These birds are often present at joyous occasions, whether it be at weddings, or even in theological scripture, where a dove brings Noah signs of land after being on the ark for many nights and days. Regardless, it’s a symbol of light and love, of innocence and purity, of optimism and truality.
Will you marry me, pretty Peggy-O
Will you marry me, pretty Peggy-O
If you will marry me, I will set your cities free
And free all the ladies in the area-O
Our perspective now shifts to the captain’s. He truly falls in love with this one, already asking to slip on the ring. He makes a reference to cities in the third and fourth line, giving way to a diplomatic kind of marriage. Perhaps that in this war, he states he can ‘free the cities’ of this woman’s country, either captured by him or captured by a foreign invader. He is so in love with this woman, he’s willing to risk life and death freeing her cities if so captured by a foreigner. No love is complete without sacrifice.
I would marry you, sweet William-O
I would marry you, sweet William-O
I would marry you, but your guineas are too few
And I fear my mama would be angry-O
We now switch to the perspective of the maiden. The song takes an abrupt turn, unfortunately, for our captain. She now states that even though, being captain of a detachment of men, he has little money. She wishes for something more. The term “guinea” refers to a coin made of a quarter ounce of gold that was made in Britain between 1664, and 1814. It refers to where most of the gold was mined for these coins, the Guinea region of West Africa. Regardless, the woman fears of her mother marrying into someone of poorer wealth, whether it is in terms of nobility or in terms of materialism.
What would your mama think, pretty Peggy-O
What would your mama think, pretty Peggy-O
What would your mama think if she heard my guineas clink
And saw me marching at the head of my soldiers-O
The captain seems quite morose. He really wants to be with this woman, and in a sort of way, intimidates her. What would she think, if she saw this man at the head of his soldiers? Would his guinea’s clink louder then? Maybe it’s just my interpretation, but it truly seems like he is almost pushing this woman into a marriage with him. She already refused to marry him over his material, but now will she coerce once she arrives at her mother’s home with soldiers? It’s kind of a dark turn in this story, really.
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 ladies in the area-O
We now see our captain maddened and frustrated. Once again in his perspective, he threatens this woman, that “your cities I will burn.” So angry, and with his detachment of men, he threatens to put to the torch the woman’s country, should he return after his unstated mission. He goes further on, to “destroy all the ladies in the area,” stating that she will not be the only one.
Come stepping down the stairs, pretty Peggy-O
Come stepping down the stairs, pretty Peggy-O
Come stepping down the stairs, combing back your yellow hair
And bid a last farewell to young William-O
It now seems suddenly, after the threats the captain passed along to her, that the woman finally heels. Some time must have passed, as she now must bid a farewell to her captain, William. I state that time has passed because no woman comes skipping down the stairs to the captain that threatened and wished to punish her, and time must have passed and healed some wound upon this woman to the point where she seems giddy. Maybe, perhaps in another interpretation, she is also happy that he is leaving, and is skipping down the stairs in delight that this man is leaving her. She now bids farewell to the captain, as he leaves her home. Oddly enough, there is an omen in the last line, stating a “last farewell to young William-O,” that this is the last time she will see this man. It is the last time she will bid farewell to this man.
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's buried in the Louisiana country-O
Our captain now lies dead. The reason of his death is unknown, whether it is under disease over gunfire, over disease, or what have you. But what is clear is that he died for a “maid.” Are they referring to Peggy-o? Or is it some other woman that he met in the countryside on his travels? I would state that he died for this woman, Peggy-O. Perhaps he is now “freeing the ladies in the area-o,” as he previously stated. This mission would connect our captain to her, and seemingly tie in the whole love story. Our captain now lies buried somewhere in Louisiana, which begs the question; what war was this? A claim lies on the Civil War, where we can tie in a sense of history now to this adapted story. Perhaps Peggy-O was a slave, as she was a maid, and perhaps this captain is freeing “all the ladies in the area,” referring to him freeing all the slaves in the area that this woman dwells in. He also had the choice to destroy all the ladies, as this slave woman was at the mercy of his arms. Then again, Peggy-O’s mother wouldn’t approve of this, but what choice would she really have, being a slave? Maybe I’m just reading too deep into this, but this seems like a likely interpretation, giving the story a civil war twist.
As we rode out to Fennario
As we rode out to Fennario
Our captain fell in love with a lady like a dove
And he called her by name pretty Peggy-O
The song now begins over. Either the perspective shifts back to a soldier in the previous captain’s regiment, and the story begins anew, or maybe he is now telling the story to someone else, passing on this tale to other soldiers he meets in bars, taverns, or pubs.
It’s an interesting story, this one. Filled with various interpretations, historical twists and turns, and a story to tell throughout the entire song. One can interpret this song in a variety of ways, which I think is the best part of music. Each little word can have a separate meaning to the listener, and it brings people to a song for a variety of ways. The slow saunter of this song, the timeless lyrics, and the stories it holds all paint different pictures for each individual, forever drawing someone for different reasons to each song.
Recommended version: Huntington Civic Center, 4/16/1978.

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