Thursday, November 25, 2010

Murder Most Foul - "Poor Ellen Smith"

"Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural."
- Shakespeare, Hamlet

I would guess that many folk aficionados like myself have wondered at some point or other what sort of dark spirit was hovering over the hills and hollers of North Carolina in the 19th century that prompted so many notorious murders, marring the serenity of that otherwise lovely state. Tom Dula killed Laura Foster (maybe) in Wilkes County; Frankie Silver did in her husband in Morganton, Burke County; Omie Wise was hacked up by a jilted suitor near Asheboro; the nameless girl in "The Lone Green Valley" similarly met her end in a dark Carolina forest - and Ellen Smith was indeed shot through the heart and found lying dead on the ground in Winston-Salem. Each case spawned one or more memorable ballads that have enriched the American folk tradition. Still - I'd have to think twice before letting a daughter of mine go to school in Durham or Chapel Hill...maybe there's something in the water.

If anyone needs to be told - that last sentence is a joke. But as terrible as any murder may be - those killings in North Carolina that morphed into songs all have some especially tawdry or gruesome or pathetic element to them, none more so than the sad tale of the very real Miss Smith. Ellen Smith was 17 years old and seems to have been a maid at the Zinzendorf Hotel in Winston-Salem. Described in some records as "a mulatto," she was by most accounts something of a dark beauty - and likely developmentally challenged, as they say today. She fell afoul of a fast-talking ne'er-do-well ladies man named Peter DeGraff, who was likely also a hotel employee. Smith and DeGraff apparently had a baby together, though it died before it was a year old, and Ellen was again pregnant when DeGraff apparently sent her a note (since lost) in July of 1892 to meet him in the woods behind the Zinzendorf. Smith went, probably expecting a marriage proposal. What she got was the bullet through the heart described in her song - and at close range, too, as the powder burns on her apron attested.

DeGraff was the only real suspect, as their affair was widely known, but for some reason lost in the mists of time the county sheriff refused to arrest DeGraff, who remained free until a newly-elected top cop cuffed the suspect in April of the following year. DeGraff pleaded innocent and maintained that he returned to the scene of the crime on the day of his arrest to try to summon the late Miss Smith's spirit. That didn't go over very well with the jury, which took twelve hours to convict him. Appeals subsequent to the trial proved fruitless, and DeGraff kept his date with the hangman on February 8, 1894.

The incident led to the composition of two very different songs, one rather dour and narrated by the character of DeGraff, much like the verses of "Tom Dooley"; the other is an oddly uptempo number more typical of country fiddle dance tunes. It is the latter whose lyrics are the more familiar, though as we will see, our recording artists often spliced a new version from the two. The full lyrics to both are HERE.

We know of the song today largely through the efforts of folklorist, performer, and YMCA executive director Frank Warner, who also rescued "Tom Dooley" from regional obscurity and helped make it a national phenomenon. In the best John J. Lomax-Carl Sandburg-Pete Seeger tradition, Warner traveled around the Appalachians with his tape recorder and, yes, his automatic copyrighting machine. It was Warner who heard the gifted Frank Proffitt strum the version of the Dooley song that Proffitt had learned from his grandmother, a woman who knew the Melton and Foster families who were involved in the murder case, and it was Warner's re-arrangement that became the basis for the Kingston Trio's version. But Warner also recorded a number of Proffitt's neighbors, one of whom named Homer Cornett sang this for Warner:

Warner's collection of field recordings, including this one, has recently been released on Appleseed Records. The rustic authenticity of Cornett's singing is something I find oddly appealing - wouldn't want a steady diet of it, though.

A truly surprising number of other artists have covered the song. The Kossoy Sisters, darlings of late 1950s Greenwich Village and a duo whom I've used in other posts, recorded the song in the mid-50s with legend Erik Darling adding a fine clawhammer banjo part to their guitar accompaniment:

The Kossoys are both still with us and occasionally reunite for a few shows.

Speaking of clawhammer, here is a talented amateur known only on YouTube as "LongbowbanjoAL" with some fine picking:

You could practically predict that the Kingston Trio would take a swing with their trademark uptempo, high-energy approach - and they do here:

Odd it is how gleeful the guys sound on the chorus. As always, the Trio is preserving a sort of PG image with lyric changes: in the original, it is Ellen's clothes that are mangled and all cast around, but the obvious sexual implication of that is undone when the Kingstons cheerfully substitute the gruesome "body" for the garments. But in a retreat from the ghastly, someone in the group figured that "X marks the spot" was more acceptable than the original "blood marks the spot" - though what with Ellen's body now mangled and all...And of course, here our speaker is not only innocent but is also about to be released from prison in the last verse, a more palatable conclusion than a body swinging at the end of a rope. Not as always, Trio banjoist John Stewart has also made a substitution on this song and the whole New Frontier album: he is playing a Gibson RB-180 long neck banjo rather than his usual Vega Pete Seeger model. The boxy, plunky sound of the Gibson passes muster (barely) on some other songs on the record like "Long Black Veil" (another murder ballad but not indigenous to North Carolina) but the ringing sustain of the VPS is clearly what is called for here - and is sadly missed

A few weeks back, resident folklorist Jeremy Raven pinch hit for me one week and introduced the thought that Wilma Lee Cooper was the bluegrass equivalent of the KT's Nick Reynolds - the same enthusiastic approach to vocals and even more the almost unbelievably high energy sustained rhythm strumming. Take a look:

Jeremy really nailed that one right on the head - a great performance, positively Reynoldsesque.

And speaking of the late, great Nick - consider this version from contemporary bluegrass up-and-coming stars Crooked Still, whom I've also employed in these posts before:

I hope everyone noticed as the camera pans left that the rhythm guitarist is playing - a tenor guitar, just like Reynolds. I also always like to hear songs usually done by men performed by women.

I suppose that one reason that gruesome murders seem to spawn folk songs (going back centuries at least as far as "Lord Randall" and likely farther) is that singing the ballads stimulates a catharsis of sorts - a purgation of shock and horror rather than pity and terror. Or maybe the fates of both victim and killer are intended to serve as warnings - to the wayward girls who are usually the victims and to the dark and violent men who usually do the deeds. Then again, there is something about creative representations of all sorts that propels the real awfulness of violence into the higher realm of art. Good thing that it does, or none of us would ever watch a western or a war movie - or listen to "Tom Dooley" or "John Hardy" or "Poor Ellen Smith."


Erik Shank said...

There is a mistake on the writeup of the KT's version of Poor Ellen Smith in this sentence: he is playing a Gibson RB-100 long neck banjo rather than his usual Vega Pete Seeger model.

True but the banjo is an RB-180, not RB-100. RB-100 is the low end model. RB-180 is the expensive long neck & had a Mastertone tone ring in it. Different sound than the Vega. Interesting reading, BTW.

Erik Shank, banjoist

Jim Moran said...

Thanks so much, Eric! I always appreciate factual corrections, so I'll change that forthwith. Glad you found it a good read.