It’s enough to give you the Willies

Chris JonesA Bluegrass Junction listener—we’ll call her “Laura” (because that was her name)—emailed me recently, pointing out that there are an awful lot of bluegrass songs in which women are murdered. After much thought and reflection, I gave her this subtly nuanced answer: “Yes.”

I’ve never felt it was useful to make moral judgments about songs written before there were horseless carriages and performance rights organizations, but I do have to admit that we can’t exactly claim the moral high ground over hip hop when it comes to the issue of violence and brutality towards women. The fact that our violence often sounds happy doesn’t really help our case at all.

Bluegrass artists writing songs like this today are on their own, but I can at least offer a reasonable excuse for murder ballads of the past: almost all of these heinous crimes were committed by the same man, a guy named either Willie, or often “Little Willie” (he appeared much smaller when viewed from a distance, and most people found there was no such thing as too much distance from Willie).

There has been a lot of speculation among folklorists, and other people who are paid to sit around and speculate, about the origins of the “Little Willie” songs. Dr. R.W. Reingold, in his book, Sociopaths and All-around Losers in American Folk Music, writes: “According to our best records, young women were killed by ‘Little Willie’ in a territory spanning several U.S. States, and over a period of at least 100 years. Either Willie was a fictional character, or he started his murderous rampage at the age of two and may have owned the first automobile.”

Dr. Reingold’s book wasn’t that helpful.

Others have suggested that these songs originated in the British Isles and were nothing more than stories designed to discredit King William III. William III, you may recall (just do as I did and pretend you recall), ruled over England, Ireland, The Netherlands, and several counties in North Dakota throughout either the early 17th or the late 18th century, depending on which calendar you were using. He was known as the “Orange King” because of his fondness for navel oranges and his love of University of Tennessee football. Apparently enough people disliked him, especially his brother Hank William III, that they saw fit to cast him as a murderous cad in a number of ballads, naming him “Little Willie.” They could never have known that a few centuries later, bluegrass bands would still be singing these songs (to a happy beat).

A minority of scholars (two, and one of them isn’t too sure) consider these ballads much newer, dating back only to the 1950s, when Brooklyn Dodgers fans composed many of these songs to taunt New York Giants fans and their star rookie at the time, Willie Mays. Giants’ fans in response wrote a number of murder ballads casting Dodger legend Pee Wee Reese in the “Little Willie” role. All of these songs have been lost, if they ever existed, making this theory harder to prove.

Regardless of the origin of these songs, the lyrics make it clear that his murderous ways were only the beginning of Willie’s faults; Willie was seriously insecure. He would ask various women to marry him, all of them turned him down (wouldn’t you?), and he clearly wasn’t the best at handling rejection. Once spurned, his only decision was which method of murder to use. He preferred poisoning in a glass of wine, but he often didn’t have the stuff on him, so he would resort to drowning, or stabbing, if the river was too far away.

It has occurred to me that the women in these tales didn’t learn much from history. If Little Willie had killed every girl who turned down his marriage proposal, a new strategy might have been advisable. Think how differently things would have turned out for Pretty Polly if she’d just told Willie “yes,” and maybe suggested a long engagement period, say, 80 or 90 years. When Willie was asleep, she could have slipped off and caught the first train out of town. Or perhaps to celebrate the engagement, she could have given him some of his own “special” wine.

The mystery to me has always been that Willie managed to escape the authorities all those years. He was not the brightest of bulbs in the chandelier. In his 1962 work, Really Really Dumb Criminals in Poetry and Song, Dr. Gerald Pomegranate theorized: “Little Willie may be the most intellectually deficient of all the villains of American music, as evidenced by the fact that just after burying ‘Pretty Polly,’ he went to the jailhouse, confessed to the murder, then announced that he was ‘trying to get away.’ My psychologist colleagues would use the technical phrase ‘dumb as a sack full of hammers’ to describe him.”

I suppose we could give WIllie the benefit of the doubt (not usually a good idea) and speculate that he was a really fast runner and just wanted to goad the local authorities into chasing him. On the other hand, maybe everyone at the jailhouse was extremely lazy and Willie knew it. In any case, Willie escaped time and time again and moved on to other girls in other songs.

The original point of all this is that if we simply eliminated this one serial killer from the bluegrass repertoire, we’d be back to having a relatively non-violent music form. It’s like some smaller cities that see their crime rate go down dramatically when they find the one guy who’s been holding up all the liquor stores in town. The fact is, that without our brainless (but speedy), insecure Willie, we’d all be forced to turn to opera or Irish music for our fix of blood and gore.

  • If my research is correct (and I have no reason to believe it is), the lyrics to “East Virginia Blues” may shed some light on the “stresser” that caused Little Willie to become a serial killer.

    Apparently Willie was born in East Virginia, but decided to roam the countryside of North Carolina. There he met a beautiful woman with dark curly hair and rosy red cheeks. At first he didn’t know her name, but it soon becomes clear that her name was Molly and she had an invalid mother who, despite her fragile state, was handy with a dagger.

    Here are the lyrics:

    I was born in East Virginia
    North Carolina I did roam
    There I met a fair young maiden
    But her name I did not know

    Oh her hair was dark and curly
    And her cheeks were rosy red
    On her breast she wore white linen
    Where I longed to lay my head

    Oh Molly dear, go ask your mother
    If you my bride might ever be
    If she says no, come back and tell me
    And I’ll run away with thee

    (Molly’s response:)
    Oh I’ll not go ask my mother
    Where she lies on her bed of rest
    For by her side she holds a dagger
    To kill the one that I love best

    (Willie:)
    I don’t want your greenback dollar
    I don’t want your watch and chain
    All I want is your heart darlin’
    Say you’ll take me back again

    The ocean’s deep; I cannot wade it
    And I have no wings to fly
    I’ll just get some blue-eyed boatman
    For to row me o’er the tide

    I’ll go back to East Virginia
    North Carolina ain’t my home
    I’ll go back to East Virginia
    Leave North Carolina well alone

    Poor Willie was so beside himself after Molly’s rejection. No greenback dollar and no watch and chain could take the place of his lost love. So miserable was he that he’d have rather lived in some dark holler than see her with another. Finally, he gave up on the girl and returned to his homeland. So dark and depressed was his mind that he became geographically disoriented, thinking he has to cross the ocean to get from North Carolina back to East Virginia. Apparently he was swindled by a blue-eyed boatman who took advantage of his this lost and lonely man, agreeing to row him back to East Virginia.

    It doesn’t take a detective to connect the dots after this: whenever he was spurned by another fair maiden who reminded him of Molly, Willie “beat her to the punch” so to speak, and poisoned, drowned, or stabbed her to death. Pity poor pretty Polly: she reminded Willie too much of the fair maiden Molly.

  • Lisa Sorrell

    If bluegrass girls would just learn to swim they’d live longer.

  • Chris Jones

    Good point, Lisa. As long as they could swim faster than Willie.

  • Alisha-Bear

    In my future pursuit of marriage, I am going to try to steer clear of anyone by the of Willie… It’s just not safe. Lol. Great column, Chris! 🙂

  • Steve Hardy

    Maybe each one thought they could ‘change him’.

    • Chris Jones

      . . . like, say, into a guy who doesn’t stab his girlfriends?

  • fdwil111

    Perhaps the next column can address the women who killed themselves over the body of their loved one. They are, of course, reunited in the hereafter.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Good sourcing, Christopher. From what I understand Dr. Reduit William Reingold has up close & personal experience in this field.

    { yes, this was a stretch }

  • Dennis Jones

    Amanda Smith singing her version of “Little Willie” is bone chilling. Such a beautiful melody and her perfect vocal delivery just has you in a dream state….until…. “she stuck him in the belly with a knife.” YIKES!

  • Dennis Jones

    Also a modern version might be based around the female lead posting “Willie” photos on FaceBook.

    • Chris Jones

      Hah! Good one, Dennis! The murder ballad in the age of social media (Willie will never be able to get a job again).