This week’s installment is a decidedly American contribution to the genre, and one not completely shrouded in the mists of history, but only partly so. The events of “Omie Wise” can be pinned down to a known historical event—the drowning of Naomi Wise in Randolph County, North Carolina in 1808. Jonathan Lewis was known to be involved with Naomi, who was an orphan living with the family of William and Mary Adams. Naomi was possibly already a mother of two children out of wedlock before meeting Lewis. In the song, she is pregnant with another child, likely his. Lewis was arrested for the crime, but escaped jail. He was captured again years later, tried and convicted for breaking jail, but never convicted for her murder.
Harry Smith included a 1927 version of “Omie Wise,” or “Ommie Wise,” performed by G.B. Grayson in his mid-20th century Anthology of American Folk Music. Grayson, incidentally, was the grand nephew of another (James?) Grayson, involved in the arrest of one Tom Dula (pron. “Dooley”) in the 1860s, but that’s another ballad (“Annotations of Jeff Place,“ in the liner notes to the re-issue of the Anthology.) I’ll post Grayson’s version of “Ommie Wise” a little later this week, along with an interesting companion piece speculating on Lewis’s fate.
Here is a version by Doug Wallin, in an old-time style, with a little opening fiddle, but mostly unaccompanied. Wallin has some close geographical and family association with this song.
Omie Wise (Spotify)
The lyrics for this version can be found here: Omie Wise
Here is Doc Watson’s version, with guitar; perhaps a little smoother sounding for more contemporary ears:
In terms of the tune and lyrics, most versions of this song are fairly consistent. There are a few variations on the tune here and there. The lyrics are a series of rhyming couplets, shorter stanzas than many ballads, with a simple melody that takes hold of you after a bit.
It’s introduced by a third-person narrator, and then moves to a dialogue between Naomi and J. Lewis. Versions vary in their level of detail, although “detail” here must be supposed detail—as there were no direct witnesses to the murder or to the dialogue between the lovers. Some versions incorporate a confession by Lewis—who, according to some historical accounts, did offer a deathbed confession to the murder. Despite the fact that the real Lewis escaped jail, the Lewis of the song expects to be executed for his crime—introducing the murder ballad’s particular trope of poetic justice.
Unlike with “Fair Ellender,” where the protagonists, if they were real historical figures to begin with, have diminished in that stature so that their motivations can be treated more easily in a literary way, things are different here, to me, in discussing this song. If the two can be separated, I’m less interested at the moment, at least, in discussing the dynamics between the principal players in the song, than in what the song represents for the listener and why the song is still with us—why Americans have continued to sing this song through the years. I’ll talk later about whether they can really be separated.
One possibility is that the song served simply as a way to tell the news, which is not uncommon, and kept its hold in folk song because it raised up the story of a murder not fully resolved and/or a murderer not brought to justice. Lewis, not convicted in court, is convicted in the collective imagination of the singers of and listeners to this song. He is infamous.
Another possibility is that this song’s staying power derives from its service as a cautionary tale—a song that provided, perhaps more saliently in earlier times, moral and practical guidance. It’s not too difficult to imagine how this song can be deployed to warn young people of the potential dire consequences of romance, or young women of the dangers of accepting men’s invitations to secluded spots. But, it’s probably more than that. As much as these songs exist through their performance for others, they also exist because singers want to sing them even when they’re not performing for others. The lessons it teaches are not always for others, and are not always about caution and chastity.
In a coda to her epistolary short-story about the details of Naomi Wise’s situation and romance with Lewis, singer-songwriter Anna Domino writes:
“Omie Wise is but one of many murders to be enshrined in the American folk tradition. The number and variety of ballads in which a young woman meets an untimely end at the hands of her lover are so many and so constant a subject as to make you wonder why we honor such excess. What is it about this particular crime that compels us not only to write the songs in the first place but to sing them to each other for the next two hundred years? The girl’s undoing is a cautionary tale, but it is her suffering that moves us to listen. The train that runs from righteousness to ruin and on to remorse and redemption is as American as apple pie. Courting disaster, we run away to join the outlaws, the circus, or a rock band till the shock of our fragility forces a return to the confines of the tribe, heads bowed, seeking salvation by Sunday.”
Coming up soon, we’ll take a look at whether and how the facts matter, and how some have tried to resolve the injustice of the murder unpunished.