Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Knoxville Girl

[Pictured is the home of James White, built in 1786 in Knoxville, Tennessee when it was still called White's Fort. The name of the town was changed to "Knoxville" in 1791.]

Researchers contend that the murder of a young woman in 1684 inspired the popular American folk song “Knoxville Girl.” The crime was committed in the English town of Wittam, and not long after, a twenty-three stanza broadside appeared describing the murder, the confession, the trial, and the hanging of the killer. It had the following heavy-handed title: “The Berkshire Tragedy; Or, The Wittam Miller. With an Account of his Murdering his Sweetheart.” In the fashion of the day, the last verses warned others to avoid his fate.

Many derivatives followed, including “The Oxford Girl,” “The Cruel Miller,” and “The Bloody Miller.”

English, Scottish, and Welsh settlers began moving into Appalachia before 1800. The wilderness and isolation made life hard. In an era when the average life-expectancy was about 35, living could sometimes be crueler than death. In the early days, death found settlers in many ways: child-birth, war, poverty, and lack of medical care were just a few.

Then there was murder.

The new settlers of Appalachia brought the music of Europe to America, but they were quick to change the songs to accommodate their own experiences and values. Hard work, self-sufficiency, and an unshakeable faith in God ruled their lives. On the other hand, hard drinking, quick tempers, and occasional infidelities created a brew of violence. Into this backdrop, the Knoxville girl was born.

When the song morphed from “The Berkshire Tragedy” into “Knoxville Girl,” Knoxville wasn’t really a city. It was an outpost still subject to Indian attacks. It had a rowdy reputation and, according to the local newspaper, murder was common. But to the farmers and trappers and hunters who lived alone in the backwoods many miles away, Knoxville must have seemed like a dream.

Who wrote the song? I like to think the tune blew in off the wind like the hard-scrabble existence and cold anonymous deaths of the inhabitants of Appalachia. Some poet playing a dulcimer or guitar or banjo may have first thought of those lines: “I met a little girl in Knoxville...” Then he may have used the English murder ballads as the cloth through which to thread his own words. The song doesn’t have the “feel” of an English city-instead, it has the timelessness of the Appalachian mountains.

One question remains: why did the girl’s lover kill her? Infidelity? Unwanted pregnancy? Because she wouldn’t marry him? Sometimes the best stories leave the reader hanging. The nameless girl who pleads for her life with the poignant cry, “I’m not prepared for eternity,” is ageless. The cruel murderer is, too. And that’s what makes a song last for hundreds of years.

Dozens of artists have recorded this song. One of the best-known versions is by the Louvin Brothers. Charlie and Ira Loudermilk were born in Alabama but changed their last names to Louvin when they began to record music. They started out as gospel singers, but later became popular recording artists. Ira was killed in an automobile crash in 1965. The Louvin Brothers were elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

The Knoxville Girl (Traditional)


I met a little girl in Knoxville,
A town we all know well;
And every Sunday evening,
Out in her home I'd dwell.
We went to take an evening walk,
About a mile from town.
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down.

She fell down on her bended knee,
For mercy she did cry.
"Oh, Willie, dear, don't kill me here!
I'm unprepared to die."
She never spoke another word,
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow.

I grabbed her by her golden curls,
I drug her 'round and 'round,
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville town.
"Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl,
With the dark and rolling eyes.
Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl,
You can never be my bride."

I started back for Knoxville,
Got there about midnight.
My mother, she was worried
And woke up in a fright,
Saying, "Dear son, what have you done
To bloody your clothes so?"
I told my anxious mother
I was bleeding at my nose.

I called for me a candle
To light my way to bed.
I called for me a handkerchief
To bind my aching head.
I rolled and tumbled the whole night through,
As trouble was for me.
Black flames of hell around my bed
And in my eyes could see.

They took me down to Knoxville
And put me in a cell.
My friends all tried to get me out,
But none could go my bail.
I'm here to waste my life away,
Down in this dirty old jail
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl,
The girl I loved so well.

6 comments:

Laurice Savoy said...

Please do not let this old folk music die. My Mama used to play the guitar and sing this to me and my 3 brothers and sister when we were young children. I may have forgotten some of the words but thank God found them here. My Mama is now 75 years old and still plays guitar and sings this song to me today with the soulful voice of an Angel taking me back to a different place and time, like she knew this girl and her family. Please don't ever let these songs be pushed out by 'progress'. We still Love them and want to pass them on to my children and thier children after them. Thank You so much! Laurice Savoy, my Mama, Bobbie Swan Moore.

Laurice Savoy said...

Please do not let this old folk music die. My Mama used to play the guitar and sing this to me and my 3 brothers and sister when we were young children. I may have forgotten some of the words but thank God found them here. My Mama is now 75 years old and still plays guitar and sings this song to me today with the soulful voice of an Angel taking me back to a different place and time, like she knew this girl and her family and shared in thier grieving. Please don't ever let these songs be pushed out by 'progress'. We still Love them and want to pass them on to my children and thier children after them and so Mom. These Old Folk Songs are a vital part of our music and our History and the life and trying times of our ancestors. Thank You so much! Laurice Savoy, my Mama, Bobbie Swan Moore.

Laurice Savoy said...

Please do not let this old folk music die. My Mama used to play the guitar and sing this to me and my 3 brothers and sister when we were young children. I may have forgotten some of the words but thank God found them here. My Mama is now 75 years old and still plays guitar and sings this song to me today with the soulful voice of an Angel taking me back to a different place and time, like she knew this girl and her family and shared in thier grieving. Please don't ever let these songs be pushed out by 'progress'. We still Love them and want to pass them on to my children and thier children after them and so on. These Old Folk Songs are a vital part of our music and our History and the life and trying times of our ancestors. Thank You so much! Laurice Savoy, my Mama, Bobbie Swan Moore.

Judi Fielding said...

My father taught me this song year 1964, There was a verse about him asking her to be is wife, she refuses and then the murder.

does any one know the verse that is missing

Laurice Savoy said...

There are actually several versions but I will get you the words. Such a bittersweet song, but we love to sing it.I was originally sung by the Loudon Brothers. They have the most amazing harmony. You will love their version.
I met a little girl in Knoxville girl, a town We all know well. And every Sunday evening out in her home I'd dwell. We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town, I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down. She fell down on her bended knee for mercy she did cry, oh Willie dear don't kill me
here I'm unprepared to die. She never spoke another word, I only beat her more. Until the ground around me within her blood did flow. I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and round. Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town. Go down go down you Knoxville girl with the dark and rolling eyes,go down, go down, you can never be my bride.I started back to Knoxville got there about midnight, my mother she was worried and woke up in a fright, saying dear son dear son what have you done,to bloody your clothes so? I told my anxious mother I was bleeding from at my nose. I called for me a candle to light myself to bed. I called for me a handkerchief to bind my aching head.Rolled and tumbled the whole night through as troubles was for me, like flames from hell around my bed and in my eyes could see. They carried me down to Knoxville and put me in a cell my friends all tried to get me out but none could go my bail. I'm here to waste my life away inside down in this dirty old jail because I murdered that Knoxville girl, the girl I loved so well. Still gives me chills. If you want to hear it just Google "Louvin Brothers version of Knoxville girl, and it should pop up and you can actually hear them sing that one and "In The Pines" and several more. I love it!! Enjoy Judi! Help me spread this and maybe it won't die. Hope this helps. Laurice Savoy

Laurice Savoy said...

I hope you got my response. I wrote down the entice song for you but don't see it unless it is below my original post and your reply. Laurice Savoy