“When that great ship went down”: A Titanic Playlist, Part 1

“The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard them first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, they were … → read more

Digging for Clues in the Fatal Flower Garden

“Fatal Flower Garden,” recorded in 1929 by Nelstone’s Hawaiians, is only the second of eighty-four songs on Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music – a collection justly celebrated in some macabre corners (mine, for instance) for its songs of dark, outré subject matter and tone (e.g., Clarence Ashley’s … → read more

“Willie Moore”

Leonard Rutherford (fiddle) and Dick Burnett (banjo) – Theirs is the earliest known recording of “Willie Moore” Introduction One thing I find about murder ballads in my own life is that I often remember the first time and place I hear one, or at least I remember the time I … → read more

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley

G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter [This is the second post this week on “Tom Dooley.” The first post gives the basics of the underlying story.] Hardly a fiddler or a banjo picker in our county… “I’ll tell you all Verlee and I can remember about Tom Dula…. Laura Foster was a cousin … → read more

Seeking resolution

Elvis Costello appeared five or six years ago as part of “The Harry Smith Project,” a musical renewal of the songs collected by Smith in the Anthology of American Folk Music, providing his proposed resolution of the Omie Wise tale.  It’s a remarkable performance, I think, and a fine bit … → read more

Who writes “The Ballad of Nancy and Henry”?

Harry Smith’s Anthology incorporated his somewhat idiosyncratic, news-brief style summaries for the songs he included.  The brief on “Ommie Wise” reads as follows:   GREEDY GIRL GOES TO ADAMS SPRING WITH LIAR; LIVES JUST LONG ENOUGH TO REGRET IT   A Naomi Wise was drowned by her sweetheart Jonathan Lewis … → read more

Omie Wise

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.  … → read more