Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Ballad of Naomi Wise

This is for for Bill West’s Second Great American Local Poem and Song Genealogy Challenge at West in New England.

This song, which is tied to the Deep River area in Randolph County, North Carolina, is also known as “Poor Omie Wise.” You can find a number of performances of the song on YouTube here and a rather in-depth discussion of the history and evolution of the legend and song here, at Notes on the History of Randolph County, NC. The song is considered to be the oldest American murder ballad.

I don’t know yet whether I have any ancestors in this area, and the John (Jonathan) Lewis mentioned is not related to my Lewises (as far as I know), but I chose this song because John Lewis was related to the “other” set of Lewises in Anderson County, South Carolina with whom “my” Lewises often get confused – I found out about the song when I was checking this group out. My Lewises were a little bit tamer than this group, and it’s probably just as well. I already have plenty of “bad boys” among my ancestors. I also chose this song because I grew up hearing lots of #3 songs (= real, REAL, REAL sad songs).

The tragedy to which the song refers was said to have taken place in 1807 or 1808. According to more recent versions, an orphan girl named Naomi Wise was seduced by a good-for-nothing named Jonathan Lewis. When Lewis learned that she was pregnant, he decided to persuade her to run away with him and then kill her. (One version says that his mother wanted him to marry a wealthier girl instead.) Later research seems to indicate that Lewis was actually a clerk, that Naomi Wise already had illegitimate children, and that she wanted Lewis to marry her rather than post a bastardy bond. Lewis was arrested, jailed, escaped, re-arrested, brought back to trial, tried, and acquitted.

There are many different variations of the lyrics; below are two.


Oh, listen to my story, I'll tell you no lies,
How John Lewis did murder poor little Omie Wise.

He told her to meet him at Adams's Springs.
He promised her money and other fine things.

So, fool-like she met him at Adams's Springs.

No money he brought her nor other fine things.

"Go with me, little Omie, and away we will go.

We'll go and get married and no one will know."

She climbed up behind him and away they did go,

But off to the river where deep waters flow.

"John Lewis, John Lewis, will you tell me your mind?

Do you intend to marry me or leave me behind?"

"Little Omie, little Omie, I'll tell you my mind.

My mind is to drown you and leave you behind."

"Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life,

I'll go home as a beggar and never be your wife."

He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around,

Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown.

He got on his pony and away he did ride,

As the screams of little Omie went down by his side.

T'was on a Thursday morning, the rain was pouring down,

When the people searched for Omie but she could not be found.

Two boys went a-fishin' one fine summer day,

And saw little Omie's body go floating away.

They threw their net around her and drew her to the bank.

Her clothes all wet and muddy, they laid her on a plank.

Then sent for John Lewis to come to that place --

And brought her out before him so that he might see her face.

He made no confession but they carried him to jail,

No friends or relations would go on his bail.


I'll tell you a story about Omie Wise, 

How she was deluded by John Lewis's lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams's spring; 

He'd give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case. 

Says, "We will get married; there'll be no disgrace."

She got up behind him; away they did go 

They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

"Now Omie, little Omie, I'll tell you my mind: 

My mind is to drown you and leave you behind."

"Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!

Let me go rejected and not be your wife."

"No pity, no pity," the monster did cry.

"On Deep River's bottom your body will lie."

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we 'II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn; 

They spied poor Omie's body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today. 

They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

"Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man 

Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam."


  1. Fascinating,Greta! I haven't checked the link you give about the discussion of the song but I can see how this might be considered a "descendant" of English and Scottish ballads.

    Thanks for taking part in the Challenge!

  2. Enjoyed the song, Greta, and listening to it on U-Tube! That banjo music gets me every time.

  3. Terrific contribution, Greta! For some reason I can't get enough of the 'he done her wrong' songs. Love having a new one in the repertoire.