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.