Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Those 'I Killed My Wife' Songs

I first met my good friends Greg and Ramona when Greg and I worked together on a project in Illinois. I had arrived at the jobsite a day before I was to start work. As I had done many times before, I drove east from the jobsite in search of a place to stay while I was on the job. I learned early on in this gypsy career, if I live east of the job, I won’t be driving into the sun on my way to and from work.

As often happened, I found a bar before I found a place to stay. It was midday and I needed to wash the road dust from my throat. The barkeeper was a woman named Jackie and she had just bought the place. The structure wasn’t much more than a little clapboard shack, but it had a certain comfort to it. Jackie and I had the place to ourselves and enjoyed some good conversation and more than a few drinks. After a while a few other folks drifted in and joined us at the bar. They were a friendly, pleasant lot, mostly farmhands from the surrounding cornfields.

One by one my new drinking buddies stepped down off their stools and stumbled to the door. Just as the day had started, Jackie and I were once again talking and drinking in her empty barroom. As she poured me another beer, Jackie told me closing time had past a few hours earlier and asked where I was staying. That is when it occurred to me that I had not gotten very far on my search for living quarters. Jackie offered me the use of a cot she had in the back room and told me she would be back at 6:00am to open for breakfast. As I settled onto the cot I heard Jackie lock the doors on her way out. My dreams had come true! I was locked in a bar overnight.

As promised, Jackie returned at dawn. I took my place at the bar with some of the same farmhands from the night before and had a couple of eggs, sausage, and a shot of rot gut whiskey before heading off to the jobsite.

It was on the jobsite that I met Greg. He was a friendly sort and we talked most of the day. As we were leaving for the day he asked where I was staying. Damn, I had forgotten all about that! Greg offered a homemade meal with him and his wife and I was in no position to refuse. After a wonderful supper, we poured a few of Greg’s homebrews. Greg fetched his guitar and Ramona’s mandolin, and I, my Autoharp. I don’t recall all of the songs we played that night, but we came around to “Banks of the Ohio” and followed that with “Little Omie Wise”. As we took a break to empty and refill our glasses, Ramona turned to Greg and said “It looks like you have found someone to play all of those ‘I killed my wife’ songs with.”

Ramona had a point that I had not considered until then. There are a fair amount of murder ballads in early Appalachian music. Until then, I had not thought about the significance of murder ballads, and to be honest, I haven’t given it much thought since. It's strange, but every time I hear one of the old murder ballads, I don’t think about jealousy or death. I remember an evening of good friends, good food, good drink, and good music.

Riley Puckett - Chain Gang Blues.mp3

Bill Monroe - On The Banks Of The Ohio.mp3

Dock Boggs - Little Omie Wise.mp3

Molly O'Day - Poor Ellen Smith.mp3


Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

That's your best story yet Ed. A very American story in the best sense of the word. Plus you have to love a woman with the name of Ramona.

May 31, 2007 10:13 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks for the kind words, Beer, I'm honored to get a compliment from someone I consider such a good storyteller.

I have kept in touch with Greg and Ramona for the past twenty-five years. Aside from playing some great music, Greg is the one who taught be to brew.

May 31, 2007 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Woodshed said...

I do like a good murder ballad. Particularly those where there's no reason or a flimsy reason for it - which seems to be most of them. Knoxville Girl has to take the biscuit for sudden violent murder.

Your post got me thinking that, for all the talk of violence in popular culture, murder ballads are a dying art-form. I can only think of Nick Cave and The Handsome Family as people who regularly trot them out. Even Gillian Welch only has one that I can think of.

June 02, 2007 4:20 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

You've got a couple of good points there, Woodshed. Nearly all murder ballads are based on the flimsiest of provocations, if any at all. Knoxville Girl is an excellent example. I have long wondered if the stories were selected for these songs, in part, to document these senseless acts of violence. I have to believe that many of these songs were written and passed on just because of the horror of these particularly gruesome and senseless acts. Newspapers of the day reported plenty of more “justifiable” homicides that don’t seem to have been remembered in song.

You also, correctly, point out that murder ballads have fallen from favor in recent generations and yet, we are constantly hearing how decadent the arts are becoming. I contend that the world is no more violent now than it ever was. In fact, except for the senseless acts of religious extremists and the push for empire, the world is generally at peace with itself. But then that has always been the case.

June 03, 2007 8:09 PM  

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