Roscoe Holcomb, “Omie Wise,” The High Lonesome Sound
I heard “Omie Wise” for the first time on a road trip to Tennessee that some friends and I took after my high school graduation, wending our way along the Blue Ridge Parkway in a borrowed minivan. That particular recording was not Holcomb’s version; it was the first track on a Smithsonian Folkways release called Classic Mountain Songs, performed by a fellow named Doug Wallin, a member of a North Carolinian family of ballad singers. Frankly, I prefer the Wallin version, in part for sentimental reasons, but mostly because except for the anguished flourish of fiddle at the very beginning to provide the singer his melody, he sings entirely unaccompanied (and actually, I don’t know enough about Appalachian music to extrapolate anything from this, but that kind of melodic exemplum prefacing the song reminds me of shape note singing, in which the tune is sung through once on solfege syllables before it’s sung with the lyrics). Holcomb’s frenetic picking both buoys up and distracts from the song’s rhapsodic nature, his words less crisp and almost whined.
Though “Where the Wild Roses Grow” was the first murder ballad I loved, it was “Omie Wise” that sparked my interest in the form. It’s a widely covered piece, with versions by, among others, Doc Watson, the Pentangle, Bob Dylan, and Shirley Collins. It mirrors “Stagger Lee” in that it’s based on historical record and appeared shortly after the events actually transpired (supposedly, though this is hotly disputed; we know for certain that there was a woman named (Na)omi Wise, and that she was murdered in 1808).
It also mirrors “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and “Pretty Polly” in that it relates the murder and subsequent disposal of a young woman by her lover. A small but interesting difference is the presence of a consciously imposed narrative frame in both Holcomb and Wallin’s versions of “Omie Wise”: they begin with the singer’s exhortation to listen to his story, and his vows of truth and authenticity. From the outset, then, the listener is aware of the artificial construction of the story, that the dialogue is reported speech and not the seemingly unmediated story of “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and “Pretty Polly” (the latter to a lesser extent than the former). The song isn’t merely intended for entertainment, but ostensibly serves some didactic purpose as well.
Another difference is Jonathan Lewis’ expression of remorse at the end of the song: in Wallin’s version, the last thing that we hear is his confession, the ringing lament that he’ll “never reach the sky” tolling just for a moment after the note concludes. Of course, “Pretty Polly” also ends with the murderer’s confession, but without his realization that he’s fallen into inescapable cultural and religious interstices, lost forever as a result of his actions (though it’s his own loss he mourns, and not that of Omie).
For these reasons, “Omie Wise” takes on a rather gloomy and moralistic tone: the frisson one feels as the last notes hang in the air is not one of recognition but one of estrangement, self-strangeness, diremption. A sudden and uncomfortable consciousness of the deep silences within oneself.