Sunday, August 5, 2012

Folk Goes to the Dark Side

This has nothing to do with Star Wars, although, plenty has been said of how this epic science fiction film is contemporary folk lore. The title is really about folk songs with themes or horror, crime, and in this case, murder.  

The murder ballad is a legitimate sub-genre of folk music, and has permeated and influenced other genres as well. Before the internet and 24 hour news agencies, folk music ballads borrowed from real events, often written shortly after the event itself. Francis James Child anthologized a 305 of them in 1882. The Twa Sisters is one of the oldest, dating back to 1656, but it is thought that some of these date back to the 1400s.

Contemporary examples would be The Toadies's 1994 song Possum Kingdom, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, and Johnny Cash's Delia's Gone. Nick Cave also released an album in 1996 called Murder Ballads which had a mix of traditional and original tunes, much like Cold as the Clay by Greg Graffin.

The story of Omie Wise is a great example of this. Based on the real-life relationship between a Naomi Wise, and Jonathan Lewis and subsequent unsolved murder of Naomi in North Carolina in 1808.

This song had been made popular by Doc Watson, but also recorded by Pentangle, Greg Graffin, Dock Boggs, and Shirley Collins. Another famous murder ballad, Pretty Polly, has very similar themes, Dylan's Ballad of Hollis Brown is based on it. The lyrics are as follows: 

Come listen to my story, I'll tell you no lies, how John Lewis did murder a little Omie Wise,
He asked her to meet him at Adams's spring, said he'd bring her money and other fine things,
So fool-like she met him at Adams's spring, no money he brought her nor other fine things

John Lewis, John Lewis, won't you tell me your mind, do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?
Little Omie, Little Omie, I will tell you my mind, my plan is to drown you and leave you behind,
Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life, I'll go home as a beggar and never be your wife

He hugged her and he kissed her and turned her around and threw her in deep water where he knew that she would drown,

It was on one Thursday morning the rain came pouring down and they searched for Omie's body but it
Nowhere could be found,

Two boys went a fishin' one fine summer day and they saw little Omie's body go floating away

They called for John Lewis to come to that place so he could see her body and they could see his face,

though he made no confession they threw him in jail, no friend nor relation would go on his bail

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