Friday, April 4, 2008

More Murder Ballads and Songs about True Crimes by Robert A. Waters

In the early 1970s, I attended a symposium at Auburn University. One of the courses I took came with an Auburn ring-bound notebook. When I returned home, I took the coursework out and used it for a songbook. Over the years, I typed up the lyrics to songs I liked and kept them stored there. I recently found the songbook and decided to afflict my small audience with information about more murder ballads. [Photo of Doc Watson.]

“Everglades.” Written by Harlan Howard and vocalized by The Kingston Trio, this song tells the story of a man who killed another man in a fight, then fled to the Everglades. He was never captured, but in the end, “His running and hiding didn’t make much sense/Cause the jury had ruled that it was self-defense.”

“Folsom Prison Blues.” I would rate this Johnny Cash classic among the top ten country songs ever written. It tells the story of a prisoner who longs for freedom every time a train passes by. “I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free/But those people keep a-moving and that’s what tortures me.”

There are two songs about Old West outlaws: “John Wesley Hardin” by Bob Dylan and “Jesse James,” a song my grandfather taught me. Of course, both songs present the gunmen in a heroic light, but they’re fun to play and sing.

“Long Black Veil.” I have a CD of the original version by Lefty Frizzell, although the Johnny Cash rendition is more well-known. Gillian Welch also does an outstanding version. This song will creep you out: it describes the after-death thoughts of a man who was falsely accused of murder. Being a chivalrous sort, however, he was unable to mount a defense because “I was in the arms of my best friend’s wife.” The last verse goes like this here (okay, I know the grammar ain't right, but David Allan Coe fans will understand): “The scaffold swung high with eternity near/She stood in the crowd and shed not a tear,/But sometimes at night when the cold wind moans/In a long black veil, she cries o’er my bones.”

Merle Haggard spent years in California’s prisons before being pardoned by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Many of his songs are about crime and lost souls. “Mama Tried” is another of my top ten all-time country songs. “I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right, but Mama tried./Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleadings I denied,/That leaves only me to blame cause Mama tried.”

Townes Van Zandt wrote some outstanding songs, but his greatest was “Pancho and Lefty.” I like his own version much better than the Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard rendition that has become a country classic. “Pancho, he was a bandit, boys, his horse was fast as polished steel./He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel./Pancho met his match, you know, on a desert down in Mexico./Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes...”

I’m only half-way though my songbook, so I’ll end this blog with the story of “Omie Wise.” In real-life, Naomi Wise was an orphan adopted by a kindly farmer in North Carolina. By 1808, she was a pretty teenager and a wealthy planter’s son named Jonathan Lewis began courting her. Soon she became pregnant. Unfortunately for Naomi, he had a “proper” fiancĂ© and his parents dissuaded him from marrying Naomi. So he did the only thing he could think of: he murdered her. This song was composed like a broadside by some unknown local chronicler.

Omie Wise (As sung by Doc Watson)

Come listen to my story, I’ll tell you no lies
How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise.

He told her to meet him at Adams’s Springs,
He promised her money and other fine things.

So fool-like she met him at Adams’s Springs,
No money he brought her or other fine things.

“Go with me, Little Omie, away we will go
We’ll go and get married and no one will know.”

She climbed up behind him and away they did go
But off to the river where deep waters flow.

“John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?”

“Little Omie, Little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind.
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life.
I’ll go home a beggar and never be your wife.”

He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around
And pushed her in deep waters where he knew she would drown.

He got on his pony and away he did ride
As the screams of little Omie went down by his side.

Twas on a Thursday morning, the rain was pouring down,
When the people searched for Omie, but she could not be found.

Two boys went a-fishing one fine summer day
And saw little Omie’s body go floating away.

They threw their net around her and drew her to the bank,
Her clothes all wet and muddy, they laid her on a plank.

They sent to John Lewis to come to that place
And brought her out before him so he could see her face.

He made no confession but they carried him to jail.
No friends or relations would go on his bail.

The song ends in mid-stream for a reason. Jonathan Lewis went to trial and, probably due to his father’s influence, was acquitted. He married and moved to Kentucky. A few years later, he became sick and died. It is said that on his death-bed, he confessed to murdering the unfortunate Naomi Wise.


Rebecca said...

I really love the old murder ballads. My father use to sing one to me about a drunk driver who killed to children on the side of the road. I have tried to find this sond or some information about it but have so far been unable to. Any help or imformation would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Rebecca Heath

Robert A. Waters said...

Hi Rebecca,

I love the old hillbilly songs, too. I don't remember off-hand the song you're referring to, but I have a friend who knows almost everything about country music. I'll ask her.