The Knoxville Girl

I was living in New York City a few years back and was staying the weekend at a community farm outside of New Paltz. For anarcho/hippie dinner one night, I was eating mashed potatoes loaded with nutritional yeast when a huge chunk of my tooth just fell out. When I finally got back to the City, my regular dentist was on vacation so I had to go to his fill-in guy.  I walk into the office and I see the stereotypical hunting dog pictures and UT orange that you would see in any doctor/dentist office in Tennessee.  It was so familiar, in fact, that I forgot where I was for a second.

I met the dentist and we began to talk about what happened/family history, etc. and I mentioned I was from Tennessee.  He told me that he too was from Tennessee and went to UT Knoxville before becoming a military dentist (as if the orange sea wasn’t already an indicator).  He shot me up with Novocaine and as the sweet, metallic taste of blood was still dripping from my gums he began to hum the Louvin Brother’s Murder Ballad I hadn’t heard in years:

Knoxville Girl – 

I met a little girl in Knoxville
A town we all know well
And every Sunday evening
Out in her home I’d dwell

We went to take an evening walk
About a mile from town
I picked a stick up off the ground
And knocked that fair girl down

She fell down on her bended knees
For mercy she did cry
Oh, Willie dear, don’t kill me here
I’m unprepared to die

She never spoke another word
I only beat her more
Until the ground around me
Within her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls
And I drug her ’round and ’round
Throwing her into the river
That flows through Knoxville town

Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
With the dark and roving eyes
Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl
You can never be my bride

I started back to Knoxville
Got there about midnight
My mother she was worried
And woke up in a fright

Saying, “Dear son, what have you done
To bloody your clothes so?”
I told my anxious mother
I was bleeding at my nose

I called for me a candle
To light myself to bed
I called for me a handkerchief
To bind my aching head

Rolled and tumbled the whole night through
As troubles was for me
Like flames of hell around my bed
And in my eyes could see

They carried me down to Knoxville
And put me in a cell
My friends all tried to get me out
But none could go my bail

I’m here to waste my life away
Down in this dirty old jail
Because I murdered that Knoxville girl
The girl I loved so well

Dark, right?  And that’s not even the most tragic in the murder ballad tradition. The song Knoxville Girl musically came from the traditional English and Irish ‘The Oxford Girl’ and ‘The Wexford Girl,’ moving the location from Europe to Tennessee.

But who was the Knoxville Girl?  Do the ballads come from real history?  In her case, yes.

Her name was Mary Lula Noel from Pineville, MO. In 1892 she was murdered by a man she had been dating named William (Oh Willie Dear don’t kill me here/I’m unprepared to die) Simmons of Joplin, MO.  She was missing for one week and then found floating in the Cowskin Creek with bruises around her neck.  She had no water in her lungs and had been thrown in after her death, like a careless afterthought.  Simmons never disclosed his motive, and was charged with murder by blunt force object and strangulation.

While Mary was from Missouri, the song Knoxville Girl was unquestionably about her. And though her life was cut short in beautiful youth, her memory still haunts the hills and hollers from Appalachia all the way to dentist offices in NYC.

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