Lately I’ve been researching American event songs recorded by hillbilly bands prior to WWII. The tunes I’m speaking of are those that are based on events that can actually be historically documented, unlike a song like “Knoxville Girl” which was arguably based on a real murder once upon a time but has morphed and changed so much over the centuries that the original event becomes so clouded that there’s no agreement on which historical event it’s actually based on. This means, of course, that we’re dealing with more recent events and more recent songs (although in some cases older tunes were used for the new songs.)
The oldest event that ends up in a song recorded by a pre-war hillbilly band that I’ve found is the murder of Naomi “Omie” Wise in Randolph County, North Carolina, in 1808 (some sources say 1807.) The traditional story, in brief, is that virtuous, innocent orphan Naomi is seduced by “John Lewis’ lies” and ultimately she is murdered and thrown in a river.
The ballad inspired by this murder first shows up (as far as I can tell) as “Poor Naomi” in an article by Braxton Craven (who wrote the earliest account of the murder, published as a pamphlet many years after it happened) in the Greensboro, NC, Patriot on April 29, 1874. Whether the tune started as a folk lyric or as a composed piece isn’t known, nor when the tune first entered the repertoire of local musicians. The tune, or a variation on it, first saw wax with Morgan Denmon’s 1927 version issued on the Okeh label. In subsequent years Omie’s story was put to disc by Ruben Burns (1927, Gennett, unissued), G.B. Grayson (1928, Victor), Clarence Ashley (1930, Columbia), and Aunt Idy Harper & the Coon Creek Girls (1938, Vocalion).
Now, the story of Omie’s undoing in the recorded versions of this song follows the classic murder ballad arc: innocence undone by treachery. But in a notebook in a library archive at UCLA there exists another version of the ballad, and indeed, another version of the story. The notebook was owned by one Mary Woody who would’ve been a little girl during the time of the murder (according to her reported birth date of 1801.) Her version of the ballad, which appears in the notebook as A true account of Nayomy Wise, tells of a Naomi who was far from innocent. In Woody’s version:
And by Some person was defild
And So brought forth a basturd Child
She Told her name neomy Wise
Her Carnal Conduct Some did despise
The Second Child neomy bore think She
Into a neighbors man Ben Sanders Swore
In this version, by the time she’s pregnant by John Lewis she’s now about to bear her third illegitimate child and is very proud of the fact. As “She So Sensless was of Shame”. Lewis asks her to keep it quiet, she doesn’t, so he kills her.
Whether this is a version that came from a different point of view, like someone close to the Lewis family, trying to cast Naomi’s virtue in doubt for posterity, or whether this is an echo of what truly may have occurred is open to debate without further research. If Naomi was the local slattern then she wasn’t very suited as the subject of a murder ballad in the classic sense as given the morality of the day she would’ve shared some of the guilt in that era’s worldview just by being who she was. But perhaps the very callousness of the act itself was seen as so great that the circumstances were modified to fit the classic “innocence wronged” model. Or maybe time and oral tradition simply erased the unpleasant details about Naomi’s character and shaped the ballad into the one we know today.
In many fields of research writers mention that someday we may have technology or tools to be able to improve what we know about a certain subject. Unfortunately, the very nature of history is that it tends to hide and disappear very easily. I wonder what kind of technology they could possibly develop in the future to help us find it?
-Stephen Lee Canner