Friday, November 13, 2009

Ghosts in the River




I took these photos last week in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the banks of the Ohio River.

Which reminded me of a song I sometimes sing:


Banks of the Ohio

I asked my love to take a walk,
Take a walk, just a little walk
And as we walked, 'twas then we talked
Of our approaching wedding day.

Then only say that you'll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

I held a knife against her breast
As into my arms she pressed,
She cried "Willie, don't murder me
I'm not prepared for eternity!"

Then only say that you'll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

I took her by her lily-white hand
And led her down by the river's sand;
I picked her up and pitched her in
And watched her as she floated down.

Then only say that you'll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

I started home 'twixt twelve and one
Cryin' "Oh my God! What have I done?
I've murdered the only one I love
Because she would not marry me.

Then only say that you'll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

Next day as I was returning home
I met the sheriff at my door
He said, "young man, come now and go,
Down by the banks of the Ohio."

Then only say that you'll be mine
And in no other arms entwine.
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.


Although this is generally believed to be a ballad from the 1800's, the first recording was made in 1927, according to the Ballad Index, and there seems to be no record of its author. The melody is lovely and soft, and really almost sad. Since it is "Willie" telling the story, it seems that he regretted his action in the end. Some versions have the sheriff on his doorstep; this one does. Other versions tell of him being haunted by the girl he murdered. Almost all of the versions I have found seem to indicate remorse on the part of the killer.

While in most ballads in which a young woman is murdered the reason is usually that she is pregnant, in this one I wonder if that was the case. The term lily-white usually refers to one innocent, virgin, or of moral virtue, so unmarried pregnancy would not be attributed to someone described as lily-white. Perhaps she loved someone else, and he was jealous? Since the songwriter didn't tell us, we'll never know for sure.

When I walk along the shores of the Ohio, I often think of this song and of all those who lost their lives in this mighty river. Although calm on the surface, the river holds the souls of many who lost their lives beneath her surface.

Which prompted me to write this poem several years ago:

Ghosts in the River

Spirits in the water
shades in the stream
phantoms in the shallows
shadows in the shoals
all ghosts in the river

the river sweeps them swiftly under
to sleep in silvered graves and join
lost souls gathered over years
phantoms in the river


Watch the river flowing
see their memories floating
held in silent flowing currents
generations passing
ghosts in the river now

8 comments:

DGranna said...

AS we write our family history, the Ohio River plays a big part. Our WV ancestors piled into a steamboat and headed west to Iowa after the war. And I love the song too, so many variations... from Joan Baez to bluegrass. Beautiful pics.

Farm Girl said...

Oh, I'm so glad you posted the whole song 'Banks of the Ohio'. Somewhere, while growing up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, I heard that song and have loved the beauty of the music. I could only remember the first verse and often sing it. Even though it is a sad story, the music is beautiful. Thank you for posting it, now I can learn the rest of it.

Olman said...

I always loved that song, even if i or my family have no connections to this mighty river. Your own poem is also great. I read it multiple time and copied it so i can read it again :D

I will be back again.

Granny Sue said...

The song endures, I think, because of the lovely melody, DGranna. I can see why the river holds an important place in your family history and expect it's the same for many families. Since my ancestors never made it so far west that I know of, I suppose I'm the first generation to have a relationaship with the river.

Farm Girl, it does stay with you, doesn't it? As DGranna said, it's been recorded many times in all sorts of ways. I'm always partial to the simplest versions, though.

Olman, welcome! I jumped over to your blog quickly and will be back to read more. Thank you for visiting--come back often.

Susan at Stony River said...

Some of my favourite photos from our trip were on the banks of the Ohio--I love big rivers, they're such a mystery, so beautiful and so dangerous too.

Has anyone written a version yet in which she survives, lands downstream, gets herself a wonderful very BIG boyfriend who comes back to give the narrator a new face? I'd like to hear that one.
:-P

Granny Sue said...

No one's written it yet, Susan, but you sure could. I sing Pretty Polly, another murderous ballad where he stabs her ad puts her into a grave. Then recently I learned another version called Cruel Ship's Carpenter where she comes back as a ghost and:

"she scratched at him,
and she cut him
and she has torn him in three, saying that's for the murder
of my baby and me."

He got his, for sure! I like that version quite well :-)

bluemountainmama said...

'banks of the ohio' has always been one of my favorite murder ballads... my parents always sang it, so i learned it from them.

also, it was so great meeting you yesterday... how serendipitous was that? :)

Granny Sue said...

Hey Amy! It was a pleasure to meet you too. How funny that we'd been in the same places before but not realized it. Blogworld is like that, isn't it? We know each other online but not in person--and yet when I met you it felt like I knew you well.

I hope our paths cross again soon.

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