The other day I was doing a search for sheet music to play on my fiddle, as is standard for a Friday evening, and one tune in particular piqued my interest. It’s an old song, and like those old country ballads, has deep roots in our people and our culture. I don’t know about all you out there, but I don’t take much of a liking to this new country music with their jacked up trucks, tight jeans and excessive drinking, so I stick to the old ones.
The ballad in question is “The Ballad of Omie Wise.” Some may also call it “Naomi Wise,” as The Encyclopedia of Southern Folklore does. It’s a fine tale, a part of which I’ll repeat here.
“The spirit of Naomi Wise is the tragic muse of Randolph county. This woman, who lived over 100 years ago in what was then almost a wilderness, who was drowned in the Deep River at what is now Naomi Ford, has become the subject for many sketches and several ballads, some of them have been printed. There is not a person in miles of Randleman and New Salem that does not know at least one story about her death, all of them having a few essential details corresponding. Most of the people list her among the saints and let her stand for all that was pure and holy in womanhood sacrificed to the beast in man.
…Finally one night Naomi Wise left the home with her bucket in hand to go to the spring. She went there and met some man, who succeeding generations have declared to be her lover. The two left the spring on horseback, she riding behind him, toward Deep River. The stories have it that she thought she was to be married to him at Asheboro.
That wedding never took place. Witnessed only by the hills of Randolph county and the person who did the crime, the dress of Naomi was tied over her head and she was thrown into the middle of Deep River right below the old mill dam. The body was found next morning near the place where it was supposed to have been cast.”The Encyclopedia of Southern Folklore
The entry goes on to explain how the tale is treasured in the hearts and minds of Southerners, with some even seeing the ghost of Naomi haunting the Deep River.
Why is it important that we remember what these folk songs are really about? They are told for a reason. Each tale provides a glimpse into our psyche, our collective conscience as Southerners. Omie was the picture of innocence, some putting her at 16 years old, others at 14. She was as pure white as the driven snow, and the rising of mist over the river could catch your attention as the tail of her gown. She is ours. But, she is being taken from us.
In my research for the music to the ballad, I came across an article about it. It is called “A Displaced Legacy—The Story of Omie Wise From 1808 To Now.” A portion of the article reads as such: “Julia Popham’s remarkable study of “The Ballad of Omie Wise” brings together historical inquiry with careful musical attention to reveal how a song moves in surprising and unpredictable ways across social contexts of time and place. Locating the song’s origins in a strict, patriarchal, sometimes violent nineteenth-century Appalachian culture of “calling” and familial supervision of young women’s sexuality, Julie uses primary and secondary sources, interviews with musicians and experts, and other material to show how “Omie Wise” is a revealing example of the “murdered girl” ballad. It served a function in its original setting as a harrowing, scary musical warning of the dark fate that might come to young women who put themselves in danger of getting pregnant outside of wedlock…Building on comments made by Eileen singer Becky Poole about the folk process, Julia concludes: ‘Whether Omie is wayward, innocent, or heroic, it doesn’t really matter; she’s an idea, a malleable allegory.‘”
As you can see, the ballad about the purity of womanhood and the barbarism capable by man was somehow lost in the 1950’s and 1960’s and turned into a hodgepodge of “sexuality.” Should we be surprised? This is the generation that brought about “free love” and “sexual freedom.” Their work in the past 80 years has been to unravel everything that makes our society cohesive and stable, and to make our Southern culture bend the knee to their multi-cult nightmare.
We will not let this happen. We have the original sources to call back to, as well, as the Soul of the South to guide us along. Our folk tunes, every time they spring from the bow of the fiddle, the bridge of the banjo or from the calling voice in the mountain holler, reawaken us to how thing were in those days – and, how they can be again. It’s our natural way of being, expressed the only way we know how.
At the end of the ballad, John Lewis is caught trying to leave town. Omie’s body is dredged up out of the river and laid out for him to see. In some versions, he calls out and laments her death, admitting to what he did. In others, he denies it all the way to the gallows.
Either way, the result is clear. Those that have betrayed the innocence and the Soul of the South, will receive their just reward.
Daniel Ess is a Tennessean, bah God.