violin in hand, julia popham teaches us about the story and significance of the ballad of omie wise, from its violent, patriarchal origins to its resurfacing in the pacifistic folk revival of the 1960s.
Christine Stulik and Becky Poole of Eileen, the band, who reinterpret “The Ballad of Omie Wise” as a heroic feminist story. Photo: Logan Futej.
This is the fifth student showcase of digital history audio podcast projects completed by students in the 2016 edition of my Digitizing Folk Music History seminar at Northwestern University. These projects are explorations in how scholarly history might take on new, multimedia forms. In this case, students probed the possibilities and challenges of the audio documentary format for historical interpretation. Collectively, we learned a lot from working on these projects (sometimes as much through how they do not quite work as how they did!).
Julia Popham’s remarkable study of “The Ballad of Omie Wise” brings together historical inquiry with careful musical attention to reveal how a song moves in surprising and unpredictable ways across social contexts of time and place. Locating the song’s origins in a strict, patriarchal, sometimes violent nineteenth-century Appalachian culture of “calling” and familial supervision of young women’s sexuality, Julie uses primary and secondary sources, interviews with musicians and experts, and other material to show how “Omie Wise” is a revealing example of the “murdered girl” ballad. It served a function in its original setting as a harrowing, scary musical warning of the dark fate that might come to young women who put themselves in danger of getting pregnant outside of wedlock. Displaced from its original setting into a kind of dislocated “otherness,” as Julia puts it, by technologies of electronic recording, alternate lowered tunings on the violin (by G.B. Grayson), imaginative recontextualizations on key compilations such as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and proto-feminist reinterpretations by 1950s and 60s singers such as Shirley Collins, “The Ballad of Omie Wise” arrives in the twenty-first century as a song still capable of connecting to a misty, ancient, premodern mountain-music past, but now it also has been reconfigured as a fiercely anti-patriarchal, pro-woman anthem when re-written and performed by the folk duo Eileen. “Ultimately, the song’s storyline,” Julia explains, “or at least the skeleton of the song’s storyline, has served as but a format for people to emotionally process the intertwined realities of their personal and larger historical offices.” Building on comments made by Eileen singer Becky Poole about the folk process, Julia concludes: “Whether Omie is wayward, innocent, or heroic, it doesn’t really matter; she’s an idea, a malleable allegory.”
Here is Julia’s podcast:
Here is the script: