The Artist: Cincinnati folk act (who identify as recovering punk-rockers) The Tillers
The Song: “Willy Dear,” from their fifth album Hand On The Plow, out now on Muddy Roots Recordings.
Fun Fact: The trio have won three Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and are currently on tour with Pokey LaFarge.
Songwriter Says: “‘Willy Dear’ is a song I wrote based on a Kentucky ghost story. I first heard the tale from Ross Raleigh, the owner of the historic Southgate House, a music venue dear to our hearts, in Newport, Kentucky. It’s an old mansion and it’s actually where the story takes place. Before The Tillers were a full-time band, I used to work at the house mopping floors during the day. My imagination would run away from me being all alone in that ancient mansion. I never saw any ghosts there, but I got the first ideas for this song. One night at the bar, Ross told me this ghost story about Elizabeth. It always stuck with me, not so much as a ghost story, but more so as a really touching love story with all the drama and tragedy of some of the greatest old ballads. Newport’s right across the river from Cincinnati, so it’s definitely a local home town tale.
“The way the story went as Ross told it was that a young woman, Elizabeth, was working at the mansion as a maid. She was dating a steamboat man. They were madly in love and when he was called away for another run down to New Orleans, she waited for his return. She watched and waited and one night she thought she spied his great steam ship coming back in to the port of Cincinnati. Upon arriving at the dock, there was a huge explosion and the ship blew up. Scorched men were jumping from the wreckage. Overcome with sorrow and thinking that he had died, Elizabeth went up to the widow’s walk of the Southgate House and hung herself. But it turned out that Willie’s ship was one day late to return and he and his crew were fine. Eager to be reunited with his love, he came to the house to find out that she had killed herself. He lived a lonely life after that. But the tale is that Elizabeth still haunts the Southgate House and that she goes out of the front door in her white dress at a certain time of night to go look and see if Willie’s ship has come back.
“I didn’t have a name for the man, so I named him Willy, and I used elements of traditional songs. There are bits and pieces sprinkled in there from a song called ‘Lady Margaret’ and another song called ‘The Butcher Boy.’ Some of the melody speaks of ‘Tom Dooley’ and at the very end we close out with our take on the tune ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’ I call this my modern day written, American folk tragedy. Really I just think it’s a wonderful local story worth telling.”