ASHEBORO, N.C. (AP) — With a street name and a few local attractions in Randolph County in common, Naomi Wise is likely a familiar name to local residents.
Associated with a centuries-old ballad that serves as a sad and cautionary tale about her life in Randleman, a modern musician has been inspired to tell her tale.
Singer, songwriter and real estate agent Donna Hughes happened upon the story of Naomi Wise while reading through local historical maps and accounts. She zeroed in on the account written by North Carolina historian Braxton Craven about Naomi Wise and was “fascinated by her story.”
Wise as a subject has been an interesting source of folk music throughout the years, the ballad being covered by Bob Dylan, Don Watson, the band NewTown and more recently Donna Hughes.
The original ballad’s origin can be traced to around the time of Wise’s death in 1808 and is thematically similar to other “murder ballads” of the period in that they involve stories about women murdered by lovers with more than one involving drowning.
“What is fascinating to me about her story is that she died as … sort of an outcast. She was an orphan with very humble beginnings, didn’t have anything. She was very young, so she hadn’t had a chance to accomplish a thing, but the rich people were down on poor people… and they were the members of society that she wanted to be associated with so badly, as many of us do in society today,” Hughes said.
The story of Naomi Wise itself was told locally for generations in Randleman; an orphan raised by William and Mary Adams in Randolph County. Wise was jilted by Johnathan Lewis who after courting her (and getting her pregnant) left her to marry Hettie Elliot.
Hughes noted that the story itself “keeps resurfacing” at various points in time, with the original song being repeated numerous times through local and folk history and her story continues to ripple even now.
While Hughes was fascinated enough to pen her version of Naomi Wise’s story for modern consumption, she was even more captivated by further telling Wise’s story through an elaborate music video and an upcoming film about her.
When Hughes was preparing to make the music video for the song, she sought out a director that had caught her eye from other work, Dean Jones.
Through Jones’ Burlington production company, Atlantic & Pacific Studios, they created a visual narrative that complimented the song and detailed Wise’s story.
“I had a vision of it, and it happened the way I pictured it, which is kind of cool. I was so grateful to be able to convey her story in about six minutes of song,” Hughes said.
Hughes explained the elaborate process of filming the song’s video, involving period-specific costumes, and 12 hour days of filming in the Alamance County area. The first day of filming was spent at the historical site of High Rock Farms in Gibsonville, a mansion built in 1806 by the ancestors of the late Sen. John McCain. The rest of the six days of filming took place in Cedar Rock Park in Burlington, where they made use of the park’s waterfall.
According to Hughes, Jones’ production company has received funding and has begun the process of making a feature film about Naomi Wise in 2022. A veteran producer, director, Jones’ production company has been operating in Alamance County for two years and is currently in pre-production for projects for 2021-22.
More details about their ventures can be found at Atlantic and Pacific’s website: https://www.atlanticpacific.studio/