This song has held a particular fascination for me since I first heard it over a year ago. The version we sing comes from the singing of John McCutcheon:
THE BALLAD OF OMIE WISE
I'll tell you the history of little Omie Wise
How she was deluded by John Lewis' lies
He told her to meet him at the Hellington Spring
He'd bring her some money and other fine things
But when she did meet him at the Hellington Spring
He brought her no money nor other fine things
Said, "Climb up behind me and away we will go
We'll ride and be married where the old folks won't know
She climbed up behind him and away they did go
Down through the lonesome valley where the deep waters flow
Get down from behind me and I'll tell you no lie
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind
She threw her arms around him she was so surprised
Oh, let me go beggin' if I can't be your bride."
He hugged her and he kissed her and he looked all around
He threw her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown
Then he mounted his pony and away he did go
Back through the lonesome valley where the deep waters flow
In "The Folk Songs of North America," Alan Lomax writes: "Jonathan Lewis...courted lovely Naomi Wise, an orphan who worked as a servant and field hand for Mr. Adams (in Randolph County, North Carolina, 1808). Lewis compromised Naomi, then engaged to marry her; but when his ambitious mother found a better match for him he resolved to do away with poor Naomi. She agreed to elope with him...Naomi began to complain when she realized they were riding in the wrong direction, and then John Lewis told her his real intentions. He tied her dress above her head, rode into the middle of Deep River, and held Naomi under the water with his foot. When he heard someone coming, he spurred his horse for home.
Next day, in order to throw off suspicion, he went courting a girl named Martha Huzza, and the officers found him on the front porch with Martha on his lap. Confronted with Naomi's corpse, Lewis calmly stoked the dead girl's hair and denied the crime. The following day, with the aid of friends, he broke out of the 'shackley jail' and disappeared in the West ... the folks of the North Carolina hills say that he confessed the crime on his death-bed..."
I have five versions of this song in my house and have seen more in libraries. In some versions, the names are different (Romy and George, for example) or place names vary (they meet at the Adams spring in one version and the Hellington Spring in the version we sing). Sometimes, boys fishing, or Omie's brother, find the body, and John Lewis confesses; in others, he is caught and hanged, which is probably not really what happened, but what people wished.
This ballad is a window into what life was like in an earlier time, and it is quite historical: a true event is recorded and remembered. It is an expression of how such events were communicated in the old days. The song is censored because of moral restrictions of the day (you wouldn't know she's pregnant by hearing this version!); it expresses the outrage of the North Carolina people and the story was never quite forgotten because of the song. There is a timelessness, too, about the story. Women are still being abused and murdered, and communities are still outraged. The song and the story have left a powerful mark in folksong and lore and personally for many people.
Last April, a dulcimer player named Karen told me that she met someone down South who saw a memorial stone for Omie Wise in the woods of West Virginia ... Omie's memory lives on.
So long for now! See you out there!