Friday, February 27, 2009

Little Omie Wise

For the past few years, I have been constantly singing the old Appalachian murder ballad, "Little Omie Wise". I sing it in the car, I sing it in the shower, I sing it while walking through Wal-Mart (hey, I get some interesting looks), and so on and so forth. Over the years, I had read little snippets of the story surrounding the real life Omie, but not until a recent suggestion by Granny Sue did I do a little research on this really interesting song. I've always said, "You ain't lived 'til you've heard my version of Little Omie Wise." I remember I did this last summer when my brother was staying the weekend with us. We were on our way to visit Granny Sue and while driving up the interstate, I broke into a boisterous version of "Little Omie Wise". Captive though my audience was, I do believe if there were one more verse of the song that they would have tucked and rolled right there on I-77! I suppose that is a pretty good indication that instead of singing Rock-n-Roll music, I sing Tuck-n-Roll music.

Though you can't hear me sing it on here, you can read the lyrics that I sing. As with all true folksongs, you will find different versions of the song. Here are the lyrics that I use:

I'll tell you the story of Little Omie Wise
How she became deluded by John Lewis' lies,
He told her to meet him down by Adam's Spring
Some money he would bring her and other fine things.

And fool like she met him down by Adam's Spring
But no money he brought her nor other fine things.

John Lewis, John Lewis, please tell me your mind,
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?
Little Omie, Little Omie, I'll tell you my mind,
I intend to drown you and leave you behind.

Please pity our baby and spare me my life,
I'll go home a beggar and won't be your wife.
Little Omie, Little Omie, that never can be
You're passioned invitations been trouble to me.

He hugged her, he kissed her, he turned her around,
He shoved her in the river where he knew she would drown.
He jumped on his pony and away he did ride,
And the screams of Little Omie fell down by his side.

It was on last Wednesday mornin',
The rain was a-pourin' down,
The people searched for Omie,
But she could not be found.

Two boys went a-fishin' on a fine summers day,
The body of Little Omie went a-floatin' away.
They threw their net around her and they drug her to the shore.
The body of Little Omie was searched for no more.

They sent for John Lewis, John Lewis came by,
When confronted with her body, he broke down and cried.

You can shoot me, you can hang me for I am the man,
That murdered Little Omie in yonder ole mill dam.

My name is John Lewis, my name I'll ne'er deny,
I drownded Little Omie, and I'll never reach the sky.


Little is known about the real Omie Wise, but records indicate that she was an orphan girl who was taken in by William Adams and his wife Mary Adams in Randolph County, North Carolina. It was at the Adams' farmhouse that Jonathan Lewis, son of Richard Lewis, met Naomi. Naomi and Jonathan Lewis quickly became lovers, but Jonathan was advised by his mother to pursue Hettie Elliott, whose family was "in good standing" both socially and financially. Naomi found out about Jonathan's courtship to Ms. Elliott, and although jilted, it did not stop their affair.

The day itself can not be determined, but it is said that it was sometime in April 1808 that Naomi came up missing. Mr. Adams gathered a search party and followed the horse tracks to Asheboro, North Carolina, where they found Naomi Wise's body in the river. Mrs. Ann Davis, a resident close to the water, confirmed that she had heard a woman screaming the night before. The coroner from Asheboro examined the drowned and battered body of Naomi and confirmed that she had been pregnant.

Jonathan Lewis was found and taken to jail, where he escaped a month later. As the notoriety of the case grew, many members of the Lewis family began to move out of North Carolina and into the wilds of Kentucky. It was there that Jonathan Lewis was said to have started a family six years after Naomi's death. When word of Jonathan Lewis' whereabouts reached the outraged people of Randolph County, NC, the citizens demanded he be apprehended. The authorities acquiesced to the public outcry in North Carolina, and Jonathan Lewis once again found himself in jail. His trial was moved from Randolph County to Guilford County in 1815 because an impartial juror could not be found. In Guilford County, Jonathan Lewis was found not guilty, despite numerous witnesses and ample evidence, and was free to return to Kentucky. Most people said he bought his way out of the whole affair. Five years later, in 1820, Jonathan Lewis was said to have died of an illness, but confessed to the murder of Naomi Wise on his deathbed.

Isn't it neat that events that happened in the backwoods of Appalachia 200 years ago, are still being remembered. Do any of you have some old Appalachian murder ballads that you sing on occassion? Do you know the history behind these songs?

Here is a version of "Omie Wise" by Doc Watson. It is on Youtube. This version is slightly different than the one I sing, but the cadence is fairly close.


Vera said...

Matthew, that's another great post. I don't write long comments, just want you to know I've been here and enjoyed it very much.

Granny Sue said...

I have not researched this one, Matthew, so your post is really interesting to me. I learned to sing the ballad last year and I think the melody is beautiful. The words I know are slightly different than yours, but close enough. I learned it from the Doug Wallen CD; he had a beautiful aging voice that gave the song a haunted, mourning sound.

There are so many murder ballads with stories similar to this one. Think of By the Banks of the Ohio, The Brown Girl, Pretty Polly, The Two Sisters, and so many others-not all drownings, but many sad stories all the same.

Almost all the old ballads, if not all, were based on a true story, I have read. Over the years details changed as singers adapted the song and/or added local details and settings, so it can be difficult to trace back some of them to an actual event.

One of my favorites is Molly Vaunder, known by many other names (as are many of the ballads). That one is different because the death was accidental and the ghost comes back to protect her killer. An unusual twist.

Kim said...

Great post Matthew. I'm imagining you singing it now. LOL. Keep the stories coming - love reading your take on history. Cheers. Kim.

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Well, I have heard Matthew sing "Little Omie Wise," on numerous occasions. I have surely lived! Anyway, don't let Matthew fool you. He has a beautiful, strong voice...overpowering really. It's just he gets stuck on one song and wants to sing it over and over. I like it when he "mixes it up" a bit with some different offerings. We do some mean harmonies on some of these old ballads. :-)

Janet, said...

Loved your post Matthew. That is great that you found out the facts. It's amazing that the ballad still lives and tells us about the story of long ago.

Nance said...

I wish you would put in an audio clip. I love old, old songs. I love singing . . . but I can't carry a tune. If I could hear the melody, I would at least sing this in the car on a solo road trip, or in the shower. Is there another song with the same tune?

Matthew Burns said...

Nance--After your comment I went back in and added a link to a version of "Omie Wise" on youtube. You will find it at the end of the post. It is fairly close to the version I sing, so you can get an idea of how the ballad sounds.

Thank all the rest of you for your comments, I'm glad you like the post.

Nance said...

Thanks, Matthew, for adding that link. I could have gone to youtube -- I like to go over there to listen to the original Carter family -- but thought maybe you would put in a clip of YOU singing "Little Omie Wise". Anyway, I enjoyed the post and the link.

tipper said...

A great old song-but I never knew the history behind it very interesting. I love all the old ballads-it would be hard to choose a favorite for me. Rose Conlee is one that comes to mind. I like it because he and his father show remorse for the awful deed. I think Knoxville Girl is one of most violent of the "killing" songs-and it doesn't show any remorse either. Neat post!

The Red Fox said...

Just have to say that this is one of the most enjoyable blogs that I have stumbled on,even followed your links,been to Grannys and bookmarked them all.A warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling with every visit.
A Canuck visitor!

The Tile Lady said...

I agree with Red Fox, Matthew, your blog is one of the most interesting out there, and I enjoy it immensely! Having to be away from a computer so much now I miss getting to sit as I am doing now and really absorb all the wonderful stories and enjoy what you share to the fullest. It has been WAY too long for me! You have me absolutely hooked on Omie Wise now! I went to YouTube and listened to more than a half a dozen versions. Doc Watson, Okkervil River, Greg Graffin and a couple of others were the best but I have to say I did enjoy Rattlesnake Daddy's modern take! :-) I became fascinated with ballads when I learned that my E TN cousin is also related to Sheila Kay Adams, the ballad singer (one of the few that exist now, and who did the ballad research for the movie The Songcatcher) Sheila Kay is related to Kenna on Kenna's Dad's side (I'm related to her Mom's side) and they are from that area of NW NC that is just over the mountain from SE TN. I have never met her, but would love to. I would love to hear more ballads recorded and will be searching! Thanks for an amazing post, and for introducing me to this wonderful ballad! (and to Doc Watson, Okkervil River and Grag Graffin, too, incidently!) Also, would love to hear YOU sing it one day!

simmone said...

Thanks so much for this!

Lynn G said...

Hello, Thank you for posting about Omie. Have loved the Doc Watson version of the ballad for decades. Just a quick correction. Jonathan Lewis and his family did not go to Kentucky, but to Indiana. He was apprehended at Elk Creek, Wayne County, Indiana, and brought back to NC. The educator, Braxton Craven, got it wrong in a history he wrote about Omie in the 1800s.