Banks of the Ohio

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"Banks of the Ohio" (Laws F5, Roud 157) is a 19th-century murder ballad, written by unknown authors, in which "Willie" invites his young lover for a walk during which she rejects his marriage proposal. Once they are alone on the river bank, he murders the young woman. It is also known by the longer title "Down on the Banks of the Ohio".


The song is similar in subject to "Pretty Polly", and likely tells the same story. Both songs date from approximately the same time, tell roughly the same story, and feature a villain named "Willie". Another not so well known version of the song is entitled "On the Banks of the Old Pedee".[1] The lyrics are usually adapted for a female singer.


The first recording of the song was by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers on August 12, 1927. In 1959 the song was recorded by Joan Baez as the opening track for the album Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square, the first album to feature her. In 1961 it was included in her album Joan Baez, Vol. 2 and it was one of four songs she performed at the 1968 Newport Folk Festival. She later re-recorded the song on a number of occasions and it was included on the 2011 CD compilation Voice of the People.[2]

In 1961 the song was recorded, at his New York City apartment, by folk collector Alan Lomax, featuring veteran singer Clarence Ashley, accompanied by Fred Price (fiddle), and Clint Howard and Doc Watson (guitars). The recording, filmed by George Pickow and with sound by Jean Ritchie, was later used by Anna Lomax Wood for the short film Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass.[3]

Olivia Newton-John recorded an arrangement of the song by Farra and Welsh in 1971, for her album If Not for You. It was released as the second single from the album and was successful in the UK, peaking at number six. It was her first number one hit in Australia[4] but failed to reach the top forty in Canada and the US, peaking at number sixty-six and ninety-four, respectively.[5][6] The distinctive basso backing vocals were provided by English musician and vocal session arranger Mike Sammes.

The song has also been recorded by numerous other artists, including the New Lost City Ramblers, The Wolfe Tones, G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter (as "I'll Never Be Yours"), Ernest Stoneman, Clayton McMichen, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Carter Family (also with Johnny Cash), Blue Sky Boys (whose version, performed in 1936, appears in the soundtrack of the 1973 film Paper Moon), Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, Pete Seeger, Monroe Brothers, Dolly Parton, Arlo Guthrie (as "Arloff Boguslavaki," on the 1972 Earl Scruggs album I Saw the Light), Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers, Mike Ireland and Holler, and The Callagan Brothers. Gangstagrass featuring Alexa Dirks also giving a faithful rendition on their 2014 album Broken Hearts and Stolen Money.

A Swedish version, recorded by Ann-Louise Hanson, is entitled "Tag emot en utsträckt hand".[citation needed]

The song appears, and gives the title for, the 2013 album Oh, Willie, Please... a collection of folk murder ballads, by alt-folk musical project Vandaveer. The band made live 78 acetate recording in 2011.[7][8]


The song and its title served as the theme song for, and title of, a long-running radio series broadcast of bluegrass music on WAMU-PBS and Bluegrass Country, hosted by Fred Bartenstein and produced for the International Bluegrass Music Museum, near the Ohio River in Owensboro, Kentucky.

The song was the inspiration for journalist Thrity Umrigar's decision to attend Ohio State University:[9]

"Well, that's a funny story. It's indicative of how so many major decisions in my life have been made. I was sitting in my living room in Bombay, checking off a list of American universities that offered a M.A. in journalism, when my eyes fell on "Ohio State University." There was a Joan Baez record playing on the turntable and right then, her song, Banks of the Ohio, came on. I looked up and thought, "It's a sign", and decided to apply there."


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ "The Joan Baez Web Pages". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  3. ^ "Clarence Ashley with Doc Watson: The Banks of the Ohio (1961)". YouTube. 2012-06-11. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  4. ^ "Pop Archives: Go-Set National Top 60 (June 12, 1971)". 
  5. ^ Viglione, Joe. "Olivia Newton-John – If Not for You". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 2012-12-22. 
  6. ^ "Collections Canada: RPM Top 100 Singles (November 20, 1971)". 
  7. ^ "Vandaveer - Oh Willie Please (New Album) - PledgeMusic Launch Video". YouTube. 2012-04-22. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  8. ^ from The 78 Project PRO 2 years ago Not Yet Rated (2012-03-19). "The 78 Project: Vandaveer - "Banks of the Ohio" on Vimeo". Retrieved 2014-06-14. 
  9. ^ "Thrity Umrigar Interviews". 2010-03-23. Retrieved 2014-06-14. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"Daddy Cool" by Drummond
Australian ARIA Singles Chart number-one single (Olivia Newton-John version)
25 October 1971 - 22 November 1971
Succeeded by
"Maggie May" by Rod Stewart