Omie Wise (Doc Watson/the murder)

Another I got from Doc Watson’s first LP, this murder ballad was apparently widespread through much of the South, but Doc seems to have learned it directly from local sources. The murder took place in 1808, in Deep River, North Carolina, and Doc gave the basic story in his songbook:

Naomi Wise, a little orphan girl, was being brought up by Squire Adams, a gent who had a pretty good name in the community as a morally decent human being. Omie, however, was seeing a ne’er-do-well named John Lewis, who never meant anything about anything serious, except some of his meanness. John Lewis courted the girl, seemingly until she became pregnant, and he decided that he’d get rid of her in some secret sort of way. He persuaded her to skip off with him and get married, then pushed her into the water and drowned her. Everyone knew that he had been mean to Omie, and when the body was taken out of the water, there was evidence that she had been beaten quite a lot.

According to various sources, the facts of the murder were somewhat more complicated — for one thing, Naomi Wise apparently had two children already when she was murdered, and for another, John Lewis escaped from jail, was apprehended several years later, and then was found not guilty, though the evidence was apparently strong against him. The song is thus a blend of fact and formula — the theme of a young man betraying and murdering a girl he had impregnated was popular in southern balladry, and I’ll be singing a similar story, “Banks of the Ohio,” shortly.

When I learned this, I didn’t really appreciate it, but Doc’s songbook provided tablature and it was a relatively simple arrangement, so I learned it mostly for the guitar accompaniment. Forty years later, I’ve forgotten that accompaniment, but still remember the song, and it’s one of the few southern mountain ballads that have stuck with me pretty much in their entirety. Such are the vagaries of memory.