Omie Wise was a real person, murdered by John Lewis in 1807 or 1808. She is supposedly buried in Randolph County, North Carolina.  Thematically, the song has a lot in common with similar murder ballads like “The Knoxville Girl” (done here by the Wilburn Brothers, and here by Nick Cave) and “Banks of the Ohio” (done here by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe and here by Doc, Early Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Alison Krauss).  (When somebody has a “pretty white hand” in traditional songs, it usually doesn’t end well for somebody in the story.) The impetus seems to be that local details and landmarks get grafted on a sort of murder-ballad framework, and then these different versions spring up.

Frankly, this one creeps me the hell out, not just because “Omie” is a variant of “Naomi.” It’s the tune, I think. In the 1971 Songs of Doc Watson, excerpted at this Omie Wise page on an old folksongs site, Doc says,

“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.”

The Naomi Wise story is hosted at the Allred Family Organization web page, apparently taken from a book by Manly Wade Wellman called Dead and Gone. Bob Waltz has an article about it from Inside Bluegrass (2000), in which he gives the version by Betty Smith. Here are some other versions:

  • Doc Watson – Omie Wise (ignore the stupid slideshow and just listen). Doc says he learned this song from his mother.
  • G.B. Grayson – Omie Wise (ignore the video and the stupid comments about cursed songs – just listen to the 78 recording from the Harry Smith collection)
  • Adam Weikiert – Omie Wise. The vocals are too low in this homemade video, but the banjo playing is no joke.

This one belongs in the Murder Ballads section, and one day I might move it since I don’t have much written about it.  But for now, this’ll do.  This one always reminds me of Tom Dooley, of course, too – another member of the “tragic bloody scandalous murder family” of folk songs, and/or the “murdered girl tradition,” which ought to be played to anyone who thinks that folk music is for pussies.  Tom Dooley / Tom Dula is a North Carolina “true story” fateful-triangle song.

It reminds me of Deep River Blues too, since one version of the “true story of Omie Wise” that I heard involves her being drowned in Deep River (but the connection is only in my mind – Doc’s “deep river blues” has to do with Muscle Shoals, AL, not North Carolina).

An intro entry on Appalachian Tales of Strong Women and how Omie Wise relates to the Pretty Polly / Mister Fox / Bluebeard traditions.

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last link check: 20 May 2013