Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A recent episode of Glee started me thinking about Appalachian Murder Ballads.  There are a lot of them, often focusing on a dastardly man who does a woman wrong.  Some were adapted from old English and Scottish songs; some were homegrown and based on actual events.  This one comes from North Carolina and is based on the 1808 murder of Naomi Wise by Jonathan Lewis (the dastard!).

                                                                    NAOMI WISE

Come aIl you good people, I'd have you draw near,
A sorrowful story you quickly shall hear;
A story I'll tell you about N'omi Wise,
How she was deluded by Lewis's lies.

He promised to marry and use me quite well;
But conduct contrary I sadly must tell.
He promised to meet me at Adam's spring:
He promised me marriage and many fine things.

Still nothing he gave, but yet  flattered the case.
He says we'll be married and have no disgrace,
Come get up behind me, we'll go up to town,
And there we'll be married, in union be bound.

I got up behind him and straightway did go
To the bank of Deep River where the water did flow;
He says no Naomi, I'll tell you my mind,
I intend here to drown you and leave you behind.

O pity your infant and spare me my life
Let me not go rejected and not be your wife.
No pity, no pity, this monster did cry;
In Deep River's bottom your body shall lie.

The wretch then did choke her, as we understand,
And threw her in the river below the milldam.
Be it murder or treason, O! what a great crime,
To drown poor Naomi and leave her behind.

Naomi went missing they all well did know,
And hunting for her to the river did go;
And there found her floating on the water so deep,
Which caused all the people to sigh and to weep.

The neighbors were sent for to see the great sight,
While she lay floating all that long night;
So early next morning the inquest was held;
The jury did correctly the murder did tell.

     A couple of thoughts about this ballad: 

     The tale never tells us what happened to Jonathan Lewis.  Was he caught?  Was he hanged?  When the jury "correctly the murder did tell", did that mean the jury correctly determined what had happened and identified the culprit?  With a pregnant, unwed girl, suspicion would surely fall on the baby's father.

     Notice that part of the song was told in Naomi's voice.  This seems to be fairly common in such ballads.  And it is the only way to relate what happened that would make the incident appear as solid fact rather than pure conjecture.  By using Naomi's voice, the song gives weight to Lewis's guilt; in fact, Naomi's voice and the fact that she was pregnant and unwed are the only evidence in the case, at least as far as we are told.  I don't doubt that Lewis killed Naomi, but consider what a field day a modern-day defense lawyer would have in court.

     Naomi was well-liked, considering that all the people did "sigh" and did "weep",  yet they left her body floating in the river "all that long night"!  I mean, WTF!

     By hinting that the killing could be considered "treason", the ballad tells us that such a murderous betrayal is about the lowest act a man could perform.  Not only did Lewis betray the woman he seduced, but he also betrayed his unborn child.  A social imperative had been broken.  Naomi, even after being told her fate, still wants to be married to Lewis.  Being chained to a violent s.o.b. of a husband is preferable to having no husband.

     I also wonder if the ballad had two purposes:  first, to record the historical incident of Naomi's death; and, second, to serve as a warning to young girls to watch out for dastards and to keep their knickers on.


      An interesting compendium of North Carolina murder cases can be found in Manly Wade Wellman's Edgar-winning collection Dead and Gone.  Recommended.

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