The Ballad of Frankie Silver Transcription

The Ballad of Frankie Silver Transcription

                                            THE BALLAD OF FRANKIE SILVER

Edited by Daniel W. Patterson

TOM DAVENPORT: When you’re ready, Bobby.

BOBBY McMILLON: Okay.  (singing):
            This dreadful dark and dismal day
            Has swept my glories all away.
            My sun goes down, my days are past,
            And I must leave this world at last.
            The jealous thought that first gave strife
            To make me take my husband's life.
            For days and months I spent my time
            Thinking how to commit this crime.

One of the strangest and most frightening stories that I remember happened over in western North Carolina, in the Toe River country. That's where my mother was raised and her people. My folks came into that country back in the early 1800s and in those days it was like a wild wilderness, you might say. The woods was full of pant'ers and bears, and of course there was mink and beaver. And one of the children of the Silvers family was a trapper. And his name was Charles Silvers. He was my third cousin. My grandfather, or my great-great-grandfather was his first cousin. And so it's been of course generations ago. And Charlie was raised by Uncle Jake Silvers and his second wife, whose name was Nancy Reed. And Nancy raised about eight or ten younguns by preacher Jake, but she raised Charlie too. He was the oldest, and as Charles grew up he took to the woods and he was a hunter and a trapper. And he would go out in the woods and get beaver and mink, and a big party of men sometimes would go and stay gone for months up back toward the--or weeks rather--back on the boundary, on the frontier then, I guess, of North Carolina and Tennessee.

And Charles when he was about eighteen he married a girl that's family had come into the Toe River section named Stewart, and her name was Frances Stewart. But the mountain people would call a girl named Frances Frankie. And Frankie they said was a girl that had charms. They said that she was a very pretty girl and a good dancer. And her folks, though, were real poor people. They didn't have much. They lived in a little shack of a cabin 'bout a mile down the river below the Silvers. But Charlie married Frankie, and they built up a little pole cabin across the ridge behind the mountain where Charles's brothers and sisters and father and stepmother lived. And it was just a little one-room cabin that set over there in the holler.

There was a tree that grew near where the old house was. They claimed if you got up in it that you couldn’t get out, and my mother said she thought when I was just a child and we went up there that I got up in the tree and they liked to never got me out. I don’t know if that was because of the curse or because I didn’t want to be got out.

But anyway Nanny’s brother--my grandmother Woody, her brother Grady Thomas--said that one time him and a friend was a-hunting--I think they’s coon-hunting one night--and they was laid out up in the holler there near where the cabin stood, and he said that up in the night he got to hearing screams and hollers that just froze his blood. He said that him and his buddy both took out of there like scalded dogs to get away. But he said that was the queerest thing that he ever heard, was them screams and hollers that they heard. They didn’t know what it was.

            And on a dark and doleful night
            I put his body out of sight.
            With flames I tried to him consume,
            But time would not admit it done.

Well, it was long about Christmas time, they said, that Charlie was preparing to on a hunting trip with some friends back up on the Tennessee line and was going to be gone for about a week. And it was a cold time of year, and the snow was just a-pouring down, they said, that it just poured the snow all day long, and Charlie cut down an old sourwood tree. Said he chopped it up and said that after he'd split it and he piled it up for wood that would do Frankie and the baby while he was gone a-trapping.

And when he come in that evening, they said that he sat down at the table and they ate. Well, according to my granny's uncle, her father was there too and ate supper with them, and when they got done, Charles said that "I'm beat, I think I'll lay down." And Frankie looked at him and said, "Well, I fixed a pallet for you by the fireplace." Said, "I thought you might want to take a nap till you got ready to go to bed." Well, I've wondered for years and years why in the world anybody would want to take a nap till they got ready to go to bed. And I can't figure it out, but that's the words that they claim that he said. So she had a sheepskin rug and had it laying there in front of the fireplace, and Charlie he just laid down on the rug with the little baby Nancy. It was just old enough to start walking. He went to sleep. Well, after he seemed to be sound asleep, Frankie's daddy looked at her and said, "Now's your time, Frankie, now's your time."

JEFF GRAY (North Carolina Assistant District Attorney): I originally got involved in this case at the request of the Governor’s office. Like a lot of North Carolinians I had read about the Frankie Silvers case, had seen it in books, had heard the folklore or the traditional oral renditions of this story, but had never really thought about it, had never researched it any further. The Governor had received a petition from some school children in Burke County, requesting that Frankie Silvers be pardoned, and their request to me was, find out the facts.

WAYNE SILVER (a cousin of Bobby McMillon): Anybody who came to visit would always give us their version.

BOBBY McMILLON: Yeah, they would always tell. . . .

WAYNE SILVER: They’d tell their version. Somebody else would tell their version. But I said, “You’ve got to remember, I want to hear the truth!”

BOBBY: Yeah.

WAYNE: “Give me the truth!”

BOBBY: Umh-hunh.

WAYNE: Well, boy, let me tell you. The truth has really been hard to come by.

BOBBY: Umh-hunh. Well, I’ll tell you this that I heard. Now my grandpaw Woody, he had heard the story of course growing up, but he told me that your granddad told him that her people wanted to move west, and that, that he believed--

WAYNE: I’ve heard that story.

BOBBY: that he believed that they wanted him to sell his land so they could get the goods to go with, and that he wouldn’t.

WAYNE: I used to think, “Oh my God, this woman was a mean, old, ugly--old, forty years old, at least! Old is ugly. Forty.

BOBBY: Yeah, I thought that too. Umh-hunh.

WAYNE: Then when I finally started realizing and putting the time and the perspective, you know, I thought, “My God! Here we’re dealing with something that nobody has ever--nobody ever! would have told us that, I mean, this is a teenager. She was only nineteen. He was going on twenty, almost twenty.

JEFF GRAY: Charles Silvers was reported to be a handsome man, very popular in the community, a good dancer, a good singer, and well thought of and well thought of by the ladies--and that he may have had one or more young ladies that he was interested in. And that Frankie may have been jealous.

BOBBY: (continuing) And she stood over him and she'd rear back with her ax and start to come down on him. And he's laying there--and he'd smile at her in his sleep. And said that she come back again, and he'd smile at her again. 'Bout the third time--he'd grin at her every time--the third time she finally said, "Well, I can't do it, I can't kill him a-smiling at me like that." And Charlie's--or Frankie's father--said, "Well, now, if you don't kill him," said, "I'll kill you." Said, "If you don't kill him, I'll kill you." So finally she come back, and she come down on him and give him one lick to the side of the head. And they claim that she dropped the ax then. He jumped up and screamed, "God bless the child!" Well, she run over there and jumped in the bed and got under the covers with the--and laid hid there until she heard him hit the floor. And said that her daddy took the ax when he fell, said he took the ax and come back, and he used such force to cut his head off that he split his head at the neck, and said his head bounced against the rafters.

WAYNE: I don’t get this. Everybody talks about her chopping off his head, or chopping the neck, but the gash that they found in the skull was on the top. Three inches wide and one inch deep. So this almost says what she told the sheriff--that it’s really true. She picked up the ax and she hit him on the head, maybe intending to kill him, maybe not intending to kill him, maybe in self-defense. I--and we’re all speculating.

BOBBY: (continuing) And they said that the baby, Nancy, got to crawling. And said that it crawled through, through its dad's own blood, and where it was learning to walk, it tried to stand up at the table. It put its little hand prints on the table, and said that the mark was left there forever! Well, anyway they burned him. Burned him all night long in that fireplace, with that wood that he had meant to keep Frankie and the baby warm while he was gone. And of course, naturally, all the parts of the body won't burn. It would take a awfully high heat to just about cremate anybody anyhow, so they took the parts that wouldn't burn--his guts, and his lungs, I guess, and the parts that--and liver, maybe--and put them in a sack. And she took his head, or her father did one, and they said they went and hid it in a hollow stump off out at the edge of the yard.

It was still just a-snowing, a-snowing. And so, her daddy, now--and the reports over the years always said, now, that Frankie done this, 'cause she was the one that got into trouble for it, but now this is the way that they told it at home--said that her daddy put on his boots and took his lights that was in the sack and went down the holler toward the river--it's about, oh, not quite a half a mile, but right at it--and there's a little trail that went by a branch, and about half way down the trail toward the river, there was a shelfing rock that stuck out, little stick-out point, and some rocks there around under it, and they claim that he hid that sack of lights underneath one of those rocks there.

JEFF: “Aw, Frankie was too small, she was a frail woman, a petite woman, she would not have been able to do that.” Well, maybe or maybe not. Pioneer women of that time would have known how to dismember or to dress, would be the proper term, most any farm animal, domestic animal, as well as smaller--and smaller domestic animals such as a chicken--or whatever. She very easily could have dismembered him piece by piece with an ax in the cabin.

BOBBY: (continuing) The next morning, little after daylight, Charlie's stepmother and his sisters was a-washing over across the mountain at their house, outside--it was a real cold day--and had a big old wash pot and everything, and they said that Aunt Nancy, that was Charlie's stepmammy, she saw Frankie coming across the hill with her baby. Said she come down there. Frankie said to her mother-in-law, said, "Well, you'uns is hard at it early, hain't ye?" And she said, "Yeah, we're just getting ready for a rest. It's a holiday. We's trying to clean up." And said, "What have you done this morning?" She said, oh, she'd been hard at it a-washing and a-cleaning. She didn't tell what she'd been cleaning. And so they said, "Well, where's Charlie at?" And she said, "Well, he went to get some feed for the cow across the river, man that lived not too far away. Said he ought to be back the next day. Said he thought he might stay all night. And she was going to go and see her mother and dad and stay with them that night and wanted to know if some of the boys would care to feed the cow that evening. And she said, well she'd send some of them down there. Well, they remarked that when they went to feed that evening the only tracks they saw leading to the barn was Frankie's. But anyway, the next day, some time up in the evening, after noon, Frankie come down to old man Jake's house and said, "Well, Charlie ain't got back yet," and said, "I just don't care if he don't come back." She said, "He didn't show up last night apparently, and he ain't been there all day." Said, "I'm just going back to Dad's and stay there."

HOMER SILVER (a great-great-great grandson of Charlie's father Jacob Silver): My daddy give me this place, and some of the others come in and they got him dissatisfied. You know he was getting way up in years.

BOBBY: Yeah.

HOMER SILVER: I says, “I don’t want you that-a-way. I’ll just go make you a deed for it back. And in a little while, he give the place to my sister. Well, she’s up in Minnesota, and she come home, said, “I’m going to sell you the old home place.” But said, “I’m going to fix it till you can’t sell it, and it has to stay in the family.

BOBBY: Yeah.

HOMER SILVER: I said, “You don’t sell me damn stuff like that.” I said, “I don’t buy pigs in a sack.” I said, “When you make up your mind you want to sell it, make me a clear deed for it, I’ll buy it.” That’s the first time there’s any record of it ever being sold. And it’s never been mortgaged.

BOBBY: Yeah.

BOBBY: (continuing the story) Charlie's daddy was getting pretty concerned about it then, so he put out word that Charlie was a-missing. And they got folks from all over the mountains to go to searching, and they hunted and looked, and covered ever track of ground, you know, in ten miles, I guess. Couldn't find a trace of him. They just didn't know what had happened.

JEFF: There’s one story that may possibly be true, because it’s told in so many different places, that Charles Silver’s father went to Tennessee, which of course was just over the mountains from that part of Burke County--course it being now southern Mitchell County--and got a--it’s described one one place, says a Guinea conjuror, as a black or Negro slave that had a conjure ball or a crystal that he could see and tell things from.

BOBBY: (continuing) And so he went and got it out, and they started asking it questions. Used the ball itself would be like the house. And they'd say, "Well, what happened, which way did so-and-so go?" Well, it would just turn round and round, wouldn't move. And they couldn't seem to get any clear-cut answer out of it, and put it up. And so just as old Uncle Jake was fixing to leave, the man come out and said, "Well now, I've been thinking.” He said, “Do you reckon if your son, that your son could have been murdered and done away with at the house?"

BOBBY: Ever have anything but the fireplace to heat with?

HOMER SILVER: Yeah, my daddy stopped that up about, long about ’40, I guess. The last winter we cut wood for it, we sawed down fifty-two big trees, saw logs, sawed them up for wood. One of my daughters lived over here two or three winters, and they had an oil stove in here. I come over here of a night and hell they’d scorch me in here.

BOBBY: Yeah.

BOBBY: (continuing the story) Well, before they got home, something had happened. They said that one of Charlie's buddies that would go with him a-trapping was a man named Jake Collis, and said that he was pretty good friends with him and knew him fairly well. And he got kind of suspicious about what was going on, because one day as he was a-walking over to old man Silvers' house, said that he noticed that Charlie's dog that always went with him everywhere he went would run up to the house and bark at it. And said it would just howl and bark and just go. And said then it would run down the trail out of sight, and he didn't know where it went. Well, he knew that Frankie was there then. But he kindly watched around the place till he seen her leave, and soon as she got out of sight, he went down there and investigated a little bit and she'd boarded up the doors. So he went over to old Uncle Jake Silvers and told him that he was just suspicious--or no, he didn't tell Uncle Jake--he was gone--he told some of the boys that was there about being suspicious what was going on, and they got a magistrate that lived there in the area, and two or three of them went back to the house. And they pulled the boards off and they went in. And said when they went in there, said everything looked like it had been disturbed. Said it was pretty nice and neat in one way, but said they got over at the fireplaces and said that the ashes looked awful greasy. And they took some and poured water on them, and they went to making blubbers. And said that they got to looking, it looked like little chip marks on the wall. And they had puncheon floors back in them days--floors that had hooks--the planks had hooks on the end of them--and they raised that up and said there was blood stains in the dirt, down underneath, and chips of bone.

JEFF: Other stories of the time say that Frankie was hiding in the woods, that she did not return to the cabin after his murder, and when they pulled up the floorboards she came screaming into the room like a wild woman, like a wild animal, screeching out.

BOBBY: (continuing) They got to investigating further, and went out, and that dog had come back. And it would go from place to place, and everywhere it would go they'd find a little something to remind them of Charlie. Found his head in that old hollow stump. And the reason it was a-going down the trail out of sight, it would go down there to that old stick-out rock where his lights was buried, and carry on. So they took his remains up, and buried them. Some people said they buried them a little bit at a time, instead of taking back up what they'd already buried, that they put him in three different graves. Now, I don't know whether that's the truth or not. But anyway they arrested Frankie and her mother, whose name was Barbara Stewart, and her brother Blackstone Stewart.

BOBBY: Why do you think they arrested her mother and Blackstone Stewart?

WAYNE: Well, frankly, I believe they may have become involved.

BOBBY: I think so too.

WAYNE: I believe once she killed him and she sees him dead, she goes running--she’s not going to come over here.

BOBBY: Yeah.

WAYNE: And see, the house was just across the hill.

BOBBY: I wasn’t sure how far it was.

WAYNE: Five or six minutes away.


WAYNE: But she didn’t come to them. She went to her family, and I believe, I really honestly believe, and I can’t prove--but what would you do if your nineteen-year-old daughter came to you and said, “I just killed my husband. He’s lying dead by the fireplace. I didn’t really mean to do it. I was protecting myself. And you know you’re dealing with a rich family. We were land rich.

BOBBY: Yeah.

WAYNE: And all of a sudden your family’s saying, “Well, I tell you what. We’ll help you, Frankie, we’ll get rid of the body.” Or “You do whatever you can to keep anybody from finding out, but if you get caught, it’s your problem.”

JEFF: You have to look at this case in light of the period of time and the role of women at that point in history, the role of women in society, and the view of the husband-wife relationship. And probably not at all, or in no way, can you discount the fact that it was an all-male jury.

BOBBY: (continuing) The murder charge stuck for Frankie. My great-great-great grandfather, he was a witness at the trial, and some of the other members of the family. It was a huge family, anyway. Charlie not only had eight or ten brothers and sisters, his father had eight or ten brothers and sisters, and they about all lived in that country by then. And so they put her in jail, and they had a trial. Well, for some reason--I don't know why--she kept pleading innocent and demanded proof.

JEFF: One factor that has been attributed to her possible conviction was the fact that her attorney, that his defense was deny all and make the State prove their case.

BOBBY: And they thought it strange that, you know, they figured that even if she hadn't killed him, that she must have known what was going on. It would just about be impossible that she wouldn't have, but that was the, her case. And so finally, since she wouldn't give any indication that anybody else helped in the murder, they found her guilty on that evidence alone.

JEFF: A defendant could not testify in their own behalf at their criminal trial. That changed of course after the Civil War. But she was also tried by an all-male jury. Women could not serve as jurors. And so it would be very difficult for an attorney at that time to present a defense on behalf of their client where their client was the only witness to the crime.

WAYNE: She chose to plead not guilty, but she also at the same time had talked to the sheriff and her lawyer and had confessed that Charlie was loading his gun and that she picked up the ax and defended herself, and she hit him, all of a sudden discovering that he’s dead by the fireplace.

JEFF: The jealousy aspect, the question of whether or not she had caught him in some kind of infidelity, later shifted to one of self-defense. It became known later on that he had abused her, and that he beat her frequently. Thirty-four women, which I think is an interesting fact for that time, thirty-four women of the community signed a petition, and the women rose to her aid when this story began being circulated in the community.

WAYNE: And this went to the Governor, as a request for clemency. And the Governor either didn’t listen, he didn’t respond, and a very important point: seven of the twelve jurors signed a petition--and we have this letter, it went directly to the Governor--and seven of the twelve jurors said, “We know she was guilty, but we don’t think she should be hanged.” There was no response from the Governor.

JEFF: At that time a husband was allowed to give what was referred to as “moderate chastisement” to his wife, or “moderate correction.” It goes back to what has been referred to as “the rule of thumb,” a rule brought to this country from England, that a man could strike or chastise his wife with a stick so long as it was no larger than his thumb.

BOBBY (singing):
            His chattering tongue fell gently down
            His pitiful voice soon lost its sound.
            All ye that are of Adam's race
            Let not my fault this child disgrace.

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AGENT: Hi, can we help you?

BOBBY: Yes, I’ve done some research on the Frankie Silvers story, and I know all the earlier parts of the story, but where she was incarcerated and had the trial, I’ve not been quite sure about. I knew it was here in Morganton, but--

CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AGENT: O.K. Well, we have lots of information on Frankie Silvers. This is the official court record, the judge sentencing her. We have her ballad. A biography. She’s also buried supposedly on a red dirt hillside nine miles west of Morganton on the old DeVault place, up near Lake James.

BOBBY: O.K., so that’s not the place where she was hanged?

AGENT: No, that’s the place where she’s supposedly buried.

BOBBY: O.K., all right. Do you know where Damon’s Hill is, the place that she was executed?

OTHER CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AGENT: It’s right up the street, really. It’s out on 181, out by the radio station.

BOBBY: All right. Well, I’ll take this with me, and we’ll go look it up. And I appreciate your help.

AGENT: You’re welcome, and just know that the children of Burke County are taught about Frankie Silvers.

BOBBY: All right. Thank you.

AGENT: All right.

JEFF: She was given a respite or a reprieve of two weeks by Governor Swain from her original hanging date in June of ’33 to the date she was actually hung in July of 1833, based upon her mistaken belief that she was going to be pardoned. And the Governor gave her two weeks, and as the letter said, “in order to prepare herself for her impending fate.”

BOBBY: (continuing) And in the meantime her father bribed the jailer at the jailhouse there in Morganton, to conveniently forget to lock the cell door. And so they spirited her out one night.

JEFF: When Frankie Silver became frustrated and her family became frustrated that she wasn’t going to be pardoned, after the last denial of her pardon from the Governor and before her actual hanging, she was part of an escape. She escaped.

BOBBY: (continuing)And they got her out of town, and when they did, they cut her hair off short like a man's, and that was a wonderful disguise in those days, because women just didn't cut their hair then. It was thought to be just awful sinful for a woman to have her hair cut. So they cut her hair, and give her an old felt hat to wear, and dressed her up in men's clothing.

JEFF: And they were only stopped by flood waters in Rutherford County and were trapped by the sheriff’s posse. And when he came upon them, of course, they had her there in the wagon, and her high pitched voice gave her away as not being a male or a boy.

BOBBY: (continuing) But the sheriff and his men followed after her, and they looked across a bottom, and they seen some people over there tossing a ball back and forth. Well, one man instead of catching the ball when it come to him, he’d miss it and he’d grab up like this with his hands. So the sheriff knew that’s the way that women would catch the ball back in those days in folds of their apron. Only this should have been a man. So by the time that his posse caught up with the folks that were out there playing, they’d already part of them got back in the wagons and part of them a-walking, and the sheriff rode up alongside of the person he thought was Frankie, and said, “Where you gwine, Frankie?” And she tried to put on a voice and said, “Well, thank you, sir, my name’s Tom.” And her uncle was up in the wagon driving it, right beside her, and he’s wanting to help out all he could, and he said, “Yes, sir, her name is Tom, her name is Tom.” Well, the sheriff said, “Well, come along, Frankie.”

DR. McGIMPSEY: I grew up in the third house down there, you know, from a little bitty child until I went off to school. And when we were small, back then, they would hire black women or any woman who would push us along in a baby carriage, you know, and we’d yell and scream sometimes, and they’d say, “Shut up. If you don’t shut up, the boogerman’ll get you,” and they’d always point over here, and we got the idea there was something about this hill up here.

BOBBY: And according to the stories, the public came from miles around, out of the mountains. The hollows were spitting them out. They came and just crowded this whole hill to try to see Frankie being executed. There was a blind put up and erected to try to keep onlookers from actually seeing the hanging itself, but apparently that did little good. It may even have been taken down prior to the hanging.

As she was waiting there behind the scaffold, and when the sheriff went to lead her up, they asked her if she had any request. And she said yes, she wanted a piece of cake. And so they said, "Well, we can do that for you, Frankie." And they had cake brought to her, and she eat her a piece of cake and went up on the scaffold. And they said, "Frankie, have you got anything you'd like to say?" And she said, "Well, yes, I do." And he said, "Well, we'd like for you to tell it." She went to open her mouth, and just as she did--that crowd was all assembled down there in front, and her dad and mother was standing down there--and he said that her daddy hollered out, "Die with it in you, Frankie. Die with it in you." And she closed her mouth and never said another word.

HOMEOWNER: When I got this house and somebody told me that this was the tree that she was hanged in, my son said, “Oh, great! now the house is going to be haunted!”

BOBBY: Oh, goodness. Dr. McGimpsey said when he was little and the black women would stroll them in their carriages, they’d tell them that there was a booger up here that would get them if they didn’t mind.

HOMEOWNER: Look at it from down here. See the children have been sticking stuff down in there. It’s pretty hollow, you see. Yeah.

BOBBY: Yes, it’s about gone. It’s a shame that they, they get old and die like that.

HOMEOWNER: And you can see that there’s a beehive in it now.

BOBBY: I was noticing that. Surely it’s not warm enough for them to swarm. It was so cold this morning--I can see them coming out. They do that and then they’ll get froze.

MARINA TRIVETTE (Bobby’s sister-in-law and singing partner), singing:
            This dreadful dark and dismal day
            Has swept my glories all away.
            My sun goes down, my days are past,
            And I must leave this world at last.

            O Lord, what will become of me?
            I am condemned, you all now see.
            To Heaven or Hell my soul must fly,
            All in a moment when I die.

I sort of put myself in her place and imagine how I’d feel, knowing that I was facing death and was going to be hanged. I mean, that would be a scary thought for anybody, and to know you’re going to leave your child for other people to raise would be scary. You know, it gets to me sometimes. We’ve got some ballads that we can’t sing, because we can’t get to the end of them for crying. (Laughs) So we don’t try to sing those. We’ve got one, we never have made it to the end of it yet.

BOBBY: I’m afraid I take that after my grandfather McMillon. He, he was real sensitive, and sometimes he wasn’t above shedding a tear.

MARINA TRIVETTE: I believe that’s the only thing a woman’d get mad enough about or--you know, if the man was running around on her or if he was abusing her in some way. If she could catch him asleep, she might get him. Like, you know, the women do nowadays in “The Burning Bed” and things like that. Maybe that was her only to get him back, while he was a-napping.

BOBBY: Well, he could‘ve, he could‘ve been mean to her. There was a lot of them Silvers that was queer, and they--I wouldn’t put it past them. But after I found out his possible age, it made me sort of doubt that he would have been that far along to have been that abusive. He wasn’t but I think eighteen or nineteen.

BOBBY, (singing)
            Great God, how shall I be forgiven--
            Not fit for earth, not fit for heaven.
            But little time to pray to God,
            For now I try that awful road.

BOBBY: (continuing the story) After she was hanged her father had several graves dug around about Morganton, and he was afraid that the medical students in the state or in the southeast would hire gravediggers to come dig up her body to take it to the hospitals where they were studying about disease and what caused it. Her father didn’t want to take a chance on that, so they put her body on a wagon and put flour sacks or feed sacks over the top of her, and it was in July, and of course the weather was hot. And on the next morning they brought her up here on this hill, according to the story, and they buried her. It seems like even when I was a child and I would hear the story about it that I never could conjure up a lot of the enmity toward Frankie. It just seemed that there’s some element missing from the story that we don’t know, that she must have carried to the grave with her, and apparently her family carried to the grave with them. I don’t have animosity like probably some of the closer relatives to Charles Silver would have had. It just seems sad that if she died for someone else’s deed that it never went avenged in this life.

JEFF: Taking all of this in the light of that period, and trying to weigh it based on modern-day standards, trying to weigh it as the Governor’s office would want to weigh any other petition for executive clemency, there was insufficient evidence to support granting a pardon of forgiveness to Frankie Silvers.

BOBBY (continuing): They claim that the family was curst after that. They said that the old man was killed later on while he was a-trying to cut a rail, split a rail tree, and a limb fell, knocked his brains out. And they said eventually old lady Barbara Stewart got bit by a copperhead, and she was an old woman, died of the complications. And Blackstone Stewart apparently moved off to Kentucky, and he got caught horse thieving and they hung him. So that's the way people tend to think of getting paid back in communities like that. As I began to look back and find out a little bit about that family, I found that that may have all happened, but it didn't happen real soon and all at once, that it was scattered out over maybe thirty years.

BOBBY: I think a lot of times about their bodies laying out in the weather, and the snows come and go, and the birds sing and go away. And yet the memory has still been carried on, although five generations have passed. I hope she’s resting in peace.


                                            THE MAKING OF THE BALLAD SINGER

BOBBY McMILLON, (singing):
            Cold mountains they are here around us,
            And waters trinkling down the stream.
            All in my dreams I thought I was with her,
            But when I woke it was all a dream.

When I was growing up we lived a good part of the time in a section of Caldwell, N.C., that is called King’s Creek. We lived out in a rural area, in the woods, you might say. And I think that was what--my mother was real nervous and that made me sort of nervous too as a child. I think she thought there were boogers hiding every tree, or maybe Indians were ready to come and get her or something, but she is a nervous person. The house that my mother grew up in sat on a hill, just above the mouth of the branch where Charlie was supposed to have fell through the ice. And we didn’t have any inside bathroom facilities. We had an old privy outside on the side of the mountain in the woods. And at night until you went to bed, you had to go out of doors, and so as a child I didn’t like to do that very well, because the dirt road that come just up above our house was in plain sight and I was always afraid that I would see Frankie’s spirit come wandering around the road with a ax in her hand and blood in her eyes. And so I was real careful about how often I had to step outside until bedtime. And then I would hear stories that the family would tell, when they would get together, about paint’ers and bears, and I’d love to listen to them. I don’t know why as a child--I guess other kids are this way too--they don’t like to be frightened, but in another way they do. And I just thought it was wonderful to hear these old things and stories. I was the oldest child in my mother and father’s family. My brother nearest to me is seven years younger, and so I had the stage for a long time. It was lonesome for a whole lot of the time.

When I was about six we went west. My father got some work in Southern California, where two of my uncles were living and raising their family. And we stayed out there for a while. And it was like that I had just been killed almost, because I felt that I was taken from everything that meant anything to me. And it probably has followed me down all these years since, but for the whole time that we were there I wanted to come home.

            Cold mountains they are here around us,
            And waters trinkling down the stream.
            All in my dreams I thought I was with her,
            But when I woke it was all a dream.

My mother’s mother and father--from whom I learned the story of Frankie Silvers, by the way--they raised me mostly and I would listen to them talk about their younger days and the people of their community.

PAW PAW WOODY (Bobby’s Grandfather): Cable broke and it run down in, off of that mountain and tore everything all to pieces.

BOBBY: Did anybody get hurt?


BOBBY: We all got along pretty good, but I reckon they thought I was sort of queer, because I was interested in things that people my age, you know, just either hadn’t took the time to learn or were ashamed of.

MARINA TRIVETTE (Bobby’s sister-in-law and singing partner, singing)
            I know his frightful ghost I’ll see
            Gnawing his flesh in misery. . . .

BOBBY: And I had known Marina for a couple of years before we ever actually done any singing. My cousin Pat, who worked with her at one of the Revco stores, introduced us, and one evening we both were over at Pat’s house. I had my guitar and sung a little bit. Marina knew what I was singing and started in with it, and so--

MARINA: I mean I actually love it, because my dad would sit up all night with his friends on Friday and Saturday nights playing music and singing songs. And I went to sleep hearing them and woke up the next morning, they’d still be there sometimes. They weren’t partying or anything, they’s just singing and playing music. And I was sort of around it my whole life. But my mother, she hated the music. She sort of blamed everything, I guess their problems, on him wanting to play music and go out, you know, and play and with his friends. And she sort of--she couldn’t sing a lick. So she, I think maybe she was a little jealous of that. And she sort of wanted us not to follow that way, you know, but I’d always listen. I’d hear those songs and I’d listen to those stories and lay there sometimes when I was eight and nine years old and just cry over them sad stories.

MARINA (singing):
            My father he was a rich old jade.
            My mother she was a lady fair.
            And me a-being the only heir,
            So love has brought me to despair.

MARINA: We lived in a three-room house--me and my two brothers and a sister, my parents. And daddy worked in a furniture factory, and I thought we were the poorest people around, ‘cause we had to go outside to the bathroom and this was like in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I was ashamed of it, and I was ashamed of that old-time music, I guess, because I felt like that sort of all went together with being poor. And my friends were listening to rock-and-roll music and the Beetles and stuff, you know, and I’d listen to that too, but still down in my heart I always loved the old music. I loved to hear my dad play the banjo and the guitar and sing, and I’d sit and watch him sing, and he’d just cry, and I was just really--I guess that touched me to see a man cry over music.

BOBBY: One of her cousins married into a musically inclined family who came out of Watauga County, and her first cousin’s husband used to tip the jug quite a bit--he had been that night, I think--and she sang about that poor girl that hung herself because the butcher’s boy left her. And we got through with that song, and he was just a-wiping tears out of his eyes. “That damn--, that son-of-a-bitch, I’d kill him!” (laughs) He was just, I mean that story to him just came alive when Marina sang it.

MARINA (singing):
            And me poor girl were dead and gone
            And the green grass growing over me.
            And me poor girl were dead and gone
            And the green grass growing over me.

BOBBY: When I was sixteen my father bought me a little RCA reel-to-reel tape recorder, run off of either electricity or battery that would hold a five-inch spool of tape, and I would go and tape anybody that I could like that. I used to sit facing Paw Hopson. He’d would be on another couch. I’d be setting like this. And there was a coal stove that sort of half way cut us off. It was always hot. I’d be burnt up in the winter time, but anyway I’d set my tape recorder here and hold the microphone in my hand, and get him to telling it--because I didn’t want him to be self-conscious about it. And so he’d tell me everything just exactly the right way. That’s what I was wanting, not something that he would have to clean up a little bit if he had to in order to tell it.

And one of my great aunts by marriage taught me an awful lot of the songs that she learned as a child growing up, and I think I could always relate to her because she sort of had a lonesome-type childhood too, and it was why she had learned a lot of the songs from the people first hand as she grew up. This is a song that I learned from her, and she learned it from her first cousin who got in trouble with her school teacher. And her school teacher had taught the cousin this song one night while they were having a meeting in one of the old one-room schoolhouses, that lasted all night.

            Well, a maid a-being young, she thought it no harm.
            Well, a maid a-being young, she thought it no harm.
            Well, a maid a-being young, she thought it no harm.
            So she jumped in the bed and rolled in my arms.

            And it’s what I done there, I cannot tell here.
            And it’s what I done there, I cannot tell here.
            And it’s what I done there, I cannot tell here.
            But I wish that night had a been a long year.

            Well, a six months passed and the time rolled by.
            Well, a six months passed and the time rolled by.
            Six months passed and the time rolled by.
            Her slippers wouldn’t button, her apron wouldn’t tie.

            Well, if it’s a girl child, hire it a nurse.
            Silver and gold, put money in its purse.
            Take it on your lap and comb its little head.
            And don’t forget the night when I got your maidenhead.

            Well, if it’s a boy child, name it after me.
            Stick a gun in its pocket and dress it in blue.
            And tell it to see the girls like its papa used to do.

How much more time do we have? I’m not sure how far to go.