Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, August 2000)

Last month, Lyle gave us a piece about a marriage with a happy ending. Yes, but this is traditional song; we can't let you stay happy long. So this month, it's time for a song about a non-marriage and a non-happy ending.

As I was thinking about this column, it occurred to me that almost all British murder ballads are about anonymous victims (in the sense that there is no known incident behind the song), but native American murder ballads almost always involve an actual murder. Pearl Bryan was killed in 1896. Peter De Graf, who killed Ellen Smith, was condemned in 1893. Mary Phagan was killed in 1913. Josie Langmaid met her end in 1875. Marian Parker died in 1927. The list goes on. There are a few songs ("The Banks of the Ohio" springs to mind) which aren't tied to particular murders, but even these are often suspected of deriving from British roots.

The grand-daddy of them all, though, seems to be Omie Wise.

After nearly two centuries, historical details about this case are hard to find, but it is based on actual murder. Jonathan Lewis drowned Naomi Wise in the Deep River in Randolph County, North Carolina, and was arrested in 1808. He managed to escape, however, and after being recaptured, was acquitted of the murder. Despite the legal outcome, it seems certain that Lewis murdered Wise.

There is another song about this murder, usually called Naomi Wise; it isn't nearly as well-known.

The classic old-time version of this, of course, is by Grayson and Whitter, and I was going to do that version, but I kept hearing a woman singing it in my head. After some hunting, I found the recording by Betty Smith (Folk-Legacy FSA-53). It's a North Carolina version, clearly in the old time tradition, so I decided to use her version just for something different.

It will show you how truly "folk" this song is that I started to collate the Smith text against Grayson's, and found that no two verses were entirely identical. Only the first verse is substantially the same. The second half of the song, while maintaining the same plot elements (for the most part) is completely different in details.

Omie Wise

Complete lyrics:

I'll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis's lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams's spring;
He 'd give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, "We will get married; there'll be no disgrace."

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

"Now Omie, little Omie, I'll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind."

"Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife."

"No pity, no pity," the monster did cry.
"On Deep River's bottom your body will lie."

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we 'II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie's body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

"Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam."

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