Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 2004)

Let me bore you with some numbers. The Remembering the Old Songs series is 8 years old, and this is the 99th song we've discussed. We've spared you a lot of gore. Murder ballads are extremely common in tradition, but we printed only 16. Eight cases were of men murdering women but only three of women killing men, so here's one to help redress the balance: State of North Carolina v. Frances Silver.

I'm always curious about the real story behind the songs I sing, but usually no one knows anything about the origins. Frankie Silvers is different. The court records survive, as well as newspaper accounts. A documentary film was made about her, and a descendant even runs a website, The Untold Story of Frankie Silver, by Perry Deane Young (Down Home Press, Asheboro NC, 1998) contains all the facts along with reasonable guesses about some of the unknowable events. Frances Stewart and Charles Silver, both 17 at the time, married in 1829 and lived in a remote cabin near Toe River (now Kona) in western North Carolina. They had a baby girl, Nancy, in 1830. Charlie, a "man of vagrant and rather intemperate habits," liked to drink and consort with other women. Three nights before Christmas 1831, Charlie and Frankie got into a fight. While Charlie was loading his gun to kill Frankie, she whacked him with an axe and killed him instead. She and her brothers tried to hide the evidence by cutting up his body and burning it in the fireplace. She said he'd gone hunting and never returned, but his relatives searched around the cabin and found some of his bones buried nearby along with bloodstains underneath the cabin floor. Frankie was arrested, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by Judge Donnell (not Daniels). Since she had denied killing Charlie, she couldn't also use a self-defense plea. Frankie's friends and family appealed to the state supreme court and the governor, but got nowhere. One brother helped her break out of jail, but she was caught the next day. Finally, on July 12, 1833, she was hung in Morganton. Her child was adopted by another family. Many writers have said she was the first woman executed in North Carolina, but in fact quite a few husband-killers had been hung before her. Some people in North Carolina are still trying to get the governor to pardon her.

This song is her "confession." She didn't write it, as she was illiterate, and she didn't sing it from the gallows. It was written near the time of the execution by someone else who cribbed part of it from a newspaper poem containing another's rhyming confession. Where the tune is from, I do not know. I learned this version from a Columbia recording (15536D) by Byrd Moore & His Hot Shots (Clarence Ashley, Byrd Moore and Clarence Greene), who lived in the area. They learned it from local tradition. It was recorded in 1929, the year of Charlie and Frankie's 100th wedding anniversary.


Complete Lyrics:
This awful dark and dismal day
Has swept my glory all away;
My sun goes down, my days are past,
And I must leave this world at last.

Judge Daniels has my sentence passed,
These prison walls I'll leave at last;
Nothing to cheer my drooping head
Until I'm numbered with the dead.

His feeble hands fell gently down,
His chattering tongue soon lost its sound;
It strikes a terror to my heart
To see his soul and body part.

His awful ghost I know I'll see
Gnawing his flesh in misery;
With flaming eyes, he'll say to me,
"Why did you take my life away?"

It's awful indeed to think of death,
In perfect health to lose my breath;
But little time to pray to God,
Now I must trod that awful road.

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