Sunday, December 6, 2009

"Ommie Wise" - G.B. Grayson


Set One: Ballads; Disc One; Track Thirteen: "Ommie Wise" performed by G.B. Grayson. "Vocal solo with violin." Recorded in Atlanta on October 18, 1927. Original issue Victor 21625B (40306).

Gilliam Banmon Grayson was born in Ashe County, North Carolina on November 11, 1887, but was raised in Laurel Bloomery, an East Tennessee town on the North Carolina border. Blinded in infancy, Grayson turned to music as a livelihood, as did so many visually handicapped individuals during the early 20th century (including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Richard Burnett, and Blind Willie Johnson, all of whom appear on the Anthology). Studying music from an early age, Grayson became proficient on both banjo and fiddle. In 1927, Grayson met Henry Whitter (who does not appear on this recording) at a fiddlers' convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, and the two men formed a musical partnership that was to last until Grayson's untimely death in 1930. Together, Grayson and Whitter made a string of recordings for Victor that have become country music standards, including "Nine Pound Hammer," "The Banks of the Ohio," "Little Maggie, "Handsome Molly," "Going Down the Lee Highway," and "Tom Dula," better known as "Tom Dooley" in the version recorded by the Kingston Trio. "Tom Dula" must have held particular significance for Grayson, as it was his uncle who captured the real Tom Dula in 1866. Grayson was killed in an automobile accident on August 16, 1930 while riding on the running board of a neighbor's car.

"Ommie Wise" marks the first song on the Anthology based on a verifiable historical event. In 1807, Naomi Wise was drowned by her lover Jonathan Lewis in Asheboro, North Carolina. An autopsy at the time revealed that Wise was several months pregnant at the time of her death. Lewis was arrested and indicted for the murder, but escaped on October 9th of that year and fled for parts unknown. Lewis was recaptured in 1811, and finally went to trial on October 4, 1813. He was not tried for the murder of Naomi Wise, however, but for escaping jail. The jury returned the following verdict: The Defendant [Found] Guilty of breaking Jail & rescuing himself as charged in the bill of Indictment, but Not guilty as to the rescuing of Moses Smith (a fellow prisoner) from legal confinement: Judgment of the Court that the Defendant pay a fine of Ten Pounds and costs & be imprisoned thirty days. Lewis was unable to pay the fine and court costs and was confined for a further 47 days before being declared insolvent and set free.

Recent research has shown that Naomi Wise was several years older than Jonathan Lewis and that she had two out-of-wedlock children by other men, making her ineligible for marriage by the mores of the time. Bastardy laws, however, made the man responsible for her pregnancy financially liable, providing a possible motive for the murder.

John Lewis was married to Sarah McCain on March 30, 1811 in Clark County, Indiana. They had two children. Lewis died of unknown causes on April 25, 1817.

"Ommie Wise" is a slightly fictionalized account of the murder, reportedly written shortly after the event itself. An early 19th century version of the text has been discovered. Grayson made the first recorded version of the song, which has been performed by many others, including Clarence Ashley.

I'll tell you all a story about Ommie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis's lies.

He told her to meet him at Adams's spring;
He'd bring her some money and some other fine things.

He brought her no money nor no other fine things,
But "Get up behind Naomi, to squire else we'll go."

She got up behind him so carefully we'll go.
They rode till they came where deep waters did flow.

John Lewis he concluded to tell her his mind;
John Lewis he concluded to leave her behind.

She threw her arms around him, "John spare me my life.
And I'll go distracted and never be your wife."

He threw her arms from 'round him and into the water she plunged.
John Lewis, he turned 'round and rode back to Adams's Hall.

He went inquiring for Ommie, but "Ommie, she is not here.
She's gone to some neighbor's house and won't be gone very long."

John Lewis was took a prisoner and locked up in the jail.
Was locked up in the jail around, was there to remain awhile.

John Lewis, he stayed there for six months or maybe more.
Until he broke jail, into the army he did go.


Grayson's performance of the song is powerful. His singing is strong and firm, and his fiddle is played in an archaic and extremely effective manner. The song has a very strong rhythm, despite the lack of any rhythmic instrumentation. It is one of the most remarkable performances on the first volume of the Anthology.

"Ommie Wise" continues the theme of the woman as victim, first seen in "The Butcher's Boy" and "The Wagoner's Lad." This is the first time on the Anthology, however, that a woman is the victim of deliberate violence. The murder of a scorned woman and the disposal of her body in water is a fairly common trope in this type of ballad, commonly known as "Murder Ballads," appearing in "The Banks of the Ohio" and "The Knoxville Girl."

When he performed with the McGarrigle Sisters as a part of The Harry Smith Project, Elvis Costello wrote his own sequel to "Ommie Wise" titled "What Lewis Did Last." You can go here to watch the video, since I can't figure out how to embed it.

The smoke from the battlefield drifted away
as Corporal J. Lewis deserted the fray.

He ran from the bullets, evaded arrest.
He told his companions, "I must get my rest."

He told his companions, "I dream every night.
The faces of men I've dispatched in the fight."

"Their shades will approach me as I lie so still.
They offer their hand but they wish me no ill."

"They're shakin' their heads now, there's something they know.
For there is another who still haunts me so."

"Her name was Naomi, her life it was brief.
She was plain, she was homely and destined for grief."

"She coveted riches, believed in my prize.
She fell to her end. In the water she lies."

"There were no farewell kisses, no tender embrace.
She was guilty of something beyond avarice."

"She entered the waters and down she did float.
But they gathered her up and it troubles me."

"It's not the account of her pitiful death.
It's not her last pleading or her final breath."

"But when I consider how she last beseached me,
her face has no features her tongue has no speech."

So I'm here to tell you what Lewis did last,
ahead of the firing squad and trumpet blast.

He broke through the glass for a lock of her hair.
He dug up her grave but the coffin was bare.


Lyrics © Elvis Costello

Personal Note: When I appeared as a guest DJ on WEXT's "My Exit" last December, I programed my show around the theme of crime and punishment. G.B. Grayson's recording of "Ommie Wise" was the second selection played on that broadcast.

Shameless Plug: Don't forget to check out "Where Dead Voices Gather: The Podcast," now available on iTunes! Subscribe today so you won't miss a single episode!

When interviewed about the Anthology, Harry Smith often expressed his wish that current singers and musicians would perform their own versions of the songs contained therein. I think Smith would have approved of Rattlesnake Daddy's club version of "Ommie Wise"...



For the more traditional folkies, here's TheMankyProfessor in his Mao hat performing a version on acoustic guitar.



Download and listen to G.B. Grayson - "Ommie Wise"

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