A Season of Songs, day 20: Little Omie Wise

A Season of Songs is a type of Fun-A-Day project that I plan to do throughout this spring.  I’ll hit shuffle on the ol’ iPod and see what comes up.  I’ll then write a bit about that song, the band, the record, whatever.  Enjoy!

Today we have a depressing little number called “Little Omie Wise” by Dock Boggs, taken from the two CD collection “Folkway Years: 1963-1968”.

John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?
Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?

This is a song about John Lewis who convinces his “true love” Little Omie Wise to come along with him, promising her riches and fine things.   Instead he takes her to the river where he beats her and drowns her.  No motivation is given for this terrible act.  Eventually two boys find her bloated body and John Lewis is arrested, resigning himself to death.  It’s a gory little tale told with a plucking banjo line and Bogg’s signature nasally vocals.  The delivery of the lyrics are in somewhat odd two lines bursts.  It’s a fascinating little number.

This entire collection is full of bleak songs like “Brother Jim Got Shot”, “I Hope I Live A Few More Days”, “My Old Horse Died”, “Drunkard’s Lone Child” and “Mistreated Mama Blues”.  Probably the best known song on the collection is “Oh Death” first recorded by Boggs in the 1920’s.  There are many other versions recorded, including Ralph Stanley’s version which appears in the film “O Brother Where Art Thou” and a rock version by Camper Van Beethoven (with greatly changed lyrics/structure to the song).

I was first exposed to Dock Boggs via The Anthology of American Folk Music – which I picked up from Paul’s CD’s back in probably 1997-1998 shortly after it was re-released on CD.  This, along with getting into Woody Guthrie, would lead me into discovering many other folk artists that recorded with Folkways.  Although I would’ve heard Boggs on the Anthology, I’m guessing I picked this up entirely on the basis of it being a Folkways release.  I love this collection – definitely not everyday listening, but worth the occasionally listening when you are in the mood for banjo pickin’ and heartbreaking narratives.

Edit: After posting this I bothered to read the Wikipedia entry on “Omie Wise“.  Turns out that John Lewis got her pregnant, thus the seeming reason for the drowning.  I did not pick that up from the song.


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