I’d long been fascinated by the tale of Naomi Wise, particularly when I learned that one of my ancestors may have been involved in writing the original poem that sparked an iconic American folk ballad. In 2021, No Depression magazine gave me the opportunity to take a deep dive into this legend that became a song that became a staple among folk singers around the world, from Dylan and Doc Watson to Pentangle on up to Austin’s Okkervil River.
Tracing the story behind a song that has spooked folk music fans for 200 years
By Mark Kemp, No Depression, Fall 2021
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’ Spring.
He promised her money and other fine things.
— “Omie Wise,” Doc Watson
Something wicked was in the air. Something spooky. The humidity in the small, central North Carolina mill town of Randleman felt like cobwebs on that summer night back in 1976. The sidewalks were silent, save for muffled chatter coming from a huddle of longhaired music fans standing outside a little storefront theater on Main Street.
Doc Watson had come to perform at the Old Liberty Music Hall, and my friends and I were excited to finally get to see the great folk-singing flat-picker from Deep Gap, a little mountain village about two hours to the west near the Blue Ridge Parkway. We’d come to hear him play “Tennessee Stud,” the Jimmy Driftwood song that Watson had performed on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, as well as a few other Watson tunes that we were just becoming familiar with: “Shady Grove,” “Black Mountain Rag,” and a local favorite, the murder ballad “Omie Wise.”
Growing up in this part of North Carolina in the ’60s and ’70s, the ghost stories about poor Naomi were common. Her evil lover, Jonathan Lewis, drowned the beautiful young damsel in Deep River in 1807, leaving her lifeless body for two boys to find while fishing a few days later. To this day, it’s said that folks walking down by the river at certain times of the night can still hear Naomi’s moans and sometimes spot her ghostly figure floating facedown in the water.
On this night, Watson sang his famous song about Naomi Wise — based on a traditional ballad that had traveled around the world, interpreted by musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to the British folk-rock group Pentangle — just half a mile away from the very spot next to Deep River where Lewis left little Omie’s restless soul to languish in darkness forever. Over gently fingerpicked minor chords, Watson told Naomi’s story in a soothing baritone that barely concealed the depth of his sorrow.
Ralph Rinzler, a folklorist with the Smithsonian Institution and member of The Greenbriar Boys, was the first person to record Watson, and he recalled the guitarist saying that he’d learned “Omie Wise” from his mother and his Granny Lotte. “This ballad has been referred to as North Carolina’s principal contribution to American folk song on the basis of its wide currency,” Rinzler wrote in the liner notes to Watson’s 1964 self-titled debut album for Vanguard Records.
To be sure, there were plenty of other murder ballads and ghost stories based in this part North Carolina. For instance, there was the tale of Tom Dula (the “Tom Dooley” of the famous song recorded by The Kingston Trio and Watson), who allegedly murdered young Laura Foster in Wilkes County, near Watson’s birthplace. And then there was the story of the Phantom Hitchhiker, based on a more modern folk legend about a ghost who thumbs for rides by the side of a road at night. In the North Carolina version, the phantom is a girl named Lydia, who apparently died in a car crash near a bridge in Jamestown, about half an hour north of Randleman. Late at night, she wanders alongside East Main Street, and if you try to stop and pick her up, she disappears into thin air.
As my friends and I hopped back into my pine green Toyota Corolla after Watson’s concert that night, I assumed my best Vincent Price voice and told them that we might spot Naomi Wise hitchhiking by the bridge over Deep River. I’d conflated the legends of Lydia and Naomi, but looking back, it was well in keeping with how these folk tales tend to evolve. People add to them, take away certain details, change the tone — all to put their own perspectives, opinions, or senses of morality into the stories. The ballad of Naomi Wise is an old narrative that’s evolved dramatically in the more than 200 years since a man by the name of Levi Beeson and his mother — ancestors of mine — are said to have put her story to paper.
Fact, Fiction, and Folklore
Here are the facts about the historical Naomi Wise: She was born at some time in the 1780s, orphaned as a child, and later indentured as a servant by the family of William and Mary Adams. The Adamses owned a farm in what’s now the unincorporated Randolph County community of New Salem, a couple of miles north of Randleman. At some point, Naomi began courting Jonathan Lewis, who lived farther north in Polecat Creek but worked as a clerk in a store owned by a man named Benjamin Elliott in the county seat of Asheboro, about eight miles south of Randleman. Lewis would pass the Adams homestead on horseback during his travels between Asheboro and Polecat Creek, and he’d see Naomi working around the farm or fetching water from a spring on the property. Eventually, Naomi became pregnant with Lewis’ child.
In the more moralistic versions of the Naomi Wise ballad, she’s portrayed as an innocent teenager, pure and beautiful, smitten by the dashing but despicable Lewis. He lies to her, tells her he loves her; she gets pregnant, and he promises to marry her, only to lure her to Deep River, where he drowns her. This version of the tale is likely based on Beeson’s poem, said to have been written just after the murder, but not published until years later, in 1851, when Trinity College president Braxton Craven apparently used it (or a version of it) in his book Naomi Wise, or, The Wrongs of a Beautiful Girl. This mythologized narrative is consistent with the “murdered girl” archetype found in earlier English broadside ballads like “The Berkshire Tragedy.”
But the real story is a little more complicated. According to a more recently uncovered historical poem called “A True Account of Nayomy Wise” — published in 2003 by the late folklorist Eleanor Long-Wilgus in Naomi Wise: Creation, Re-Creation, and Continuity in an American Ballad Tradition — Naomi was older, bawdier, and had a reputation for promiscuity. She’d already birthed two illegitimate children and was so proud of her pregnancy with the high-ranking (but also licentious) Lewis that she would tell anyone who listened that he was the father. By then, Lewis had set his sights on another woman and didn’t want people to know that he’d impregnated the wayward Naomi Wise. He promised Naomi money if she kept quiet about the pregnancy, but she persisted, perhaps even trying to extort money from him. So Lewis lured her to the river and drowned her.
The simpler story, typified by Watson’s version of the ballad, represents a very unambiguous sense of morality: A beautiful and kind-hearted young girl is murdered by a scoundrel. Indeed, this characterization was not atypical in the ballads of that era: The true Naomi Wise, writes Long-Wilgus, “is transformed into a sentimental object of love and pity.” Some versions of the ballad go even further, characterizing John Lewis as somehow a tragic figure himself, worthy of listeners’ compassion, in lines suggesting that he embraced Naomi before killing her. According to Long-Wilgus, “the appearance of ‘he hugged her and kissed her’ in a small group of western North Carolina variants is a fine example of the way in which individual singers do not hesitate to impose their own esthetic and moral values upon texts they learn from others.”
The historically accurate account of Naomi Wise comes with an ending that’s sometimes not included in the sung ballads: Days after the murder, Lewis was arrested and jailed in Asheboro, but he escaped and made his way to Ohio. (Some believe that Lewis, who also served as a constable, got help from friends inside the judicial system.) Authorities eventually caught up with him, though, and Lewis was extradited back to North Carolina, where he stood trial in 1811. He was acquitted of the murder due to lack of evidence, convicted only of jailbreaking. It is believed that his connection to store-owner Elliott, a powerful figure in Randolph County who would establish the area’s first textile mill, may have helped Lewis avoid the murder conviction.
Some versions of the Naomi Wise ballad do include hints of the more complicated story (in lines such as Lewis’ promise of “money and other fine things”). And by all accounts, Lewis was a narcissist who just wanted to get rid of Naomi so he could move on with his life.
For his part, Doc Watson saw the story simply as a case of injustice. “She was a real person, an orphan who was drowned in Deep River,” he told Rinzler around the time of those early recording sessions. “John Lewis was a ne’er-do-well who broke out of jail and never did get punished.” Watson chose to abbreviate his version of the ballad — a version that has become the template for almost all subsequent renditions. “In the song,” Watson said, “I leave him in jail.”
Keepers of the Legend
Half a mile down New Salem Road from where the Adams farm once stood, Hal Pugh sits on a straight-back chair in a little wooden kiln house that dates back to 1874. He’s flanked by his wife, Eleanor Minnock-Pugh, and Sarah Bryan, the executive director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute. Hal was born and raised on this plot of land, and today, the 71-year-old and his wife not only make beautiful pottery here, but they often think about Naomi Wise.
Hal is distantly related to a lot of the characters in the tale, from Jonathan Lewis’ boss, Benjamin Elliott, to original documenter and poet Levi Beeson, to, well, very likely, me. When I was growing up in nearby Asheboro, my Quaker family on the Beeson side would hold reunions every summer in the northern Randolph County village of Sophia, just west of Randleman. Hal has done extensive genealogical research on the Beesons of this area, and he’s concluded that “all of us are related.” He laughs, adding, “That’s why we’re so crazy.”
The Pughs are fascinated with the area’s rich folk history. They’re known around Randolph County for being the keepers of Naomi’s legend. Over the past 20 years, they’ve been working on a book they’ve titled On the Banks of the Deep River: A True Account of Naomi Wise. Bryan is editing the manuscript.
Hal first became interested in the legend when he’d hear his father and other family members talk about the murder back in the 1950s and ’60s. He was 14 when he ordered a record from the Smithsonian Institution that included folksinger Paul Clayton’s version of the ballad. “I had to special order it, and I still got it,” Hal says. “It’s one of the more typical versions you hear — more like the one by the English singer Shirley Collins. When I got the record, I played it for my daddy and he says to me, ‘Nah, that’s not it.’” Hal lets out a big belly laugh. “He says, ‘The one I remember is more sing-song.’”
Eleanor elaborates. “The version his dad would have heard would have been a pre-recorded version handed down from earlier generations,” she says. “He would have heard it sung by people from around here.”
As it turns out, the melody of the earliest pre-recorded versions of “Omie Wise” was based on “How Firm the Foundation,” an old Christian hymn. “So that sounds about right,” Hal says. “Because that would have been more sing-song.”
The various recorded versions of the ballad began when Texas country singer Vernon Dalhart cut “Naomi Wise” in 1925 under the name Al Craver. Hal says that he’s not sure whether the recorded versions derived from the ballad published in Braxton Craven’s book or the more recently uncovered poem, “A True Account of Nayomy Wise.” He’s not even sure that the two poems are different. “When people say that the original ballad was written by Levi Beeson and his mother, could they be talking about ‘A True Account of Nayomy Wise’? Maybe,” Hal says. “Maybe the ballad in Craven’s book is derived from that. Or maybe they were two different things. We just don’t know where the ballad in Craven’s book came from, because a text attributed to Levi Beeson doesn’t exist. It’s just said to have been the one in Braxton Craven’s book. Maybe Craven made changes to ‘A True Account of Nayomy Wise’ and put that in his book. We just don’t know.”
What historians do know is that the narrative in Craven’s book is the one that birthed the classic American ballad that’s been recorded countless times throughout the modern era. After Dalhart cut his version, North Carolina singer G.B. Grayson followed with “Ommie Wise” in 1928. Filmmaker Harry Smith included Grayson’s version on his influential Anthology of American Folk Music compilation, which inspired many of the musicians, including Dylan, who were part of the American folk music revival that peaked in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Several other versions of the ballad appeared early on, too, including a 1938 rendition by the all-female string band Coon Creek Girls. By the mid-1960s, numerous renderings of the ballad made it on to popular albums: British singer Collins recorded it as “Omie Wise,” Scottish balladeer Alex Campbell released it as “Naomi Wise,” Virginia old-time banjo picker Dock Boggs cut his version as “Little Omie Wise,” and American singer Judy Henske released hers as “The Ballad of Little Romy.”
The song has continued to fascinate artists into the post-punk era, with former hardcore punk singer Greg Graffin of Bad Religion and the indie folk-rock band Okkervil River releasing versions of it in the 2000s. In 2006, folk-rock duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle recorded a live tribute to the song with Elvis Costello. Costello even wrote a completely fictionalized sequel about Jonathan Lewis called “What Lewis Did Last,” which finds the killer tormented by his killing of Omie Wise throughout his life and eventually dying by firing squad — something that did not happen. The song appeared as a bonus track on Costello’s 2009 album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
It took Hal a few years of research before he learned of Dylan’s unreleased 1961 performance of the Naomi Wise ballad. And being a member of the baby boom generation, he was shocked by the revelation. “I was taken aback,” Hal says. “And it turns out that Dylan recorded it really early on and it wasn’t even on an album. I didn’t expect to read that Bob Dylan had started out his career doing this ballad, or that it had been bootlegged for years. It was one of those things that made me go, ‘Wait a minute — did I read that right?’”
In Trinity, just west of Randleman, singer-songwriter Donna Hughes grew up in the 1980s hearing about Naomi Wise. A history major in college, she went back and read the original account of the murder in Craven’s book. After college, she gravitated to writing and singing country-bluegrass music, self-releasing an album in 2001 that caught the ear of bluegrass-guitar legend Tony Rice. He produced Hughes’ 2007 debut album for Rounder Records, Gaining Wisdom, which featured guest appearances by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rhonda Vincent, and Alison Krauss. Just as Hal Pugh didn’t realize until years later that Bob Dylan had recorded the Naomi Wise ballad, Hughes was not aware of Doc Watson’s version. “I’m going to totally embarrass myself now,” Hughes says with a laugh, “but I had never heard it. I’d simply read the Craven story and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this would make such a cool song!’”
Blissfully ignorant of the all the different folk variations on the Naomi Wise ballad, Hughes wrote a completely modern take with a more contemporary country melody, simply titled “Naomi Wise,” which the progressive bluegrass group Newtown recorded for its 2018 album Old World. This August, Hughes released her own recording of the song as a sprawling narrative video featuring herself singing it as the story unfolds visually all around her. It’s a reenactment of the original tale of a younger Naomi Wise spurned by the wealthy family of John Lewis, set to a cinematic bed of dramatic piano and violin. “What intrigues me about the story,” Hughes says, “is that this girl’s life impacted our community enough to have a grist mill in the 19th century named for her, as well as dams, bridges, and a street in Randleman. And then also to have Braxton Craven, the president of Trinity College — which of course, became Duke University — write about her, and then to have Bob Dylan and Doc Watson many years later record the ballad …” — she trails off and gasps — “well, that’s pretty spectacular.”
Continuing the Story
A few years after Doc Watson played “Omie Wise” at that memorable 1976 concert in Randleman, so close to the site of her untimely death, Cliff Miller helped stage a Naomi Wise play on that very same riverbank. Miller, who’d booked the Watson show in Randleman and performed with the guitarist and his son, Merle, for several years in the ’70s, now owns the Grammy-winning audio engineering firm SE Systems in Greensboro. The company has provided the sound for MerleFest, the annual music gathering that Watson founded in western North Carolina, since its inception in 1988. SE Systems has gone on to work sound for many of the folk, bluegrass, and country artists that appear at MerleFest.
The Naomi Wise play was one of Miller’s earliest events. “We set up right there on the river,” he remembers. “It was all young people — a sort of community theater group. It was very basic.” When I ask if Watson mentioned the serendipity of singing his famous ballad so close to the site of Naomi Wise’s murder, Miller pauses. “You know, I don’t remember him saying a thing about it,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think I ever heard Doc mention that song at all.”
Jack Lawrence, Watson’s longtime guitar player, doesn’t recall the singer talking about the song much either. “I remember him saying something about hearing it from his older relatives, but that’s about all,” Lawrence says.
Watson’s relative silence about this ancient American folk ballad and ghost story — one that he helped usher into a new millennium — somehow makes sense. As a folksinger, Watson knew his place in the history and enduring appeal of the Naomi Wise legend. He was just a messenger using his guitar and voice to pass along news of the wicked murder of this one young girl who died too soon — in a song that’s kept her spooky cries resonating across centuries and her ghostly image branded into musical memory forevermore.
No Depression, 2021
Watch Donna Hughes’s latest take on the Naomi Wise legend