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 superficially similar to other murder ballads in the idiom such as Omie Wise and more especially Pretty Polly, which is also generally narrated in the first person by a killer called Willie. However, it differs significantly in the narrative; the killer explains why he killed his love, and spends much of the song expressing his sorrow and regret. Musically, it is distinguished by a long refrain which calmly reflects the love and the hopes for the future which he felt before the murder. This gives a different psychological tone to the song, and accompanying singers (or indeed the audience) the possibility of singing along in chorus.

Another not so well known version of the song is entitled "On the Banks of the Old Pedee".[1]

The lyrics are sometimes adapted for a female singer.


Commercial country music recordings started in 1927 with versions by Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers (as "Down By The Banks Of The Ohio") and by Grayson and Whitter (as "I'll Never Be Yours"). Other early country music stars who recorded the song included Ernest Stoneman (1928), The Callahan Brothers (1934), The Blue Sky Boys (1936), Clayton McMichen (1931) and The Monroe Bothers (1936). The Blue Sky Boys version appears in the soundtrack of the 1973 film Paper Moon.

The song was recorded for the American folk music revival market by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1953) and by the traditional singer Ruby Vass on a 1959 field recording made by Alan Lomax and issued on the LP (and subsequent CD) series Southern Journey. It was recorded several times by Joan Baez: in 1959 as the opening track for the album Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square; in 1961 in her album Joan Baez, Vol. 2; on the 1968 Newport Folk Festival album; and other recordings. It was included on the 2011 CD compilation Voice of the People.[2]

Alan Lomax made a further field recording in 1961 at his New York City apartment, 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] Another recording by this group was issued on Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's reissued as Original Folkways Recordings: 1960–1962 (1994). Also for Folkways, Doc Watson performed the song as a duet with Bill Monroe in 1963.

Other folk revival artist who recorded the song included the New Lost City Ramblers and Pete Seeger. Artists who returned the song to country music audiences included Johnny Cash with The Carter Family, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Other recording were made by The Wolfe Tones, 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, Gangstagrass featuring Alexa Dirks also giving a faithful rendition on their 2014 album Broken Hearts and Stolen Money.

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.

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