Girl from the River

by S. J. Tucker

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about

Inspired by the short life of Helen Ruth Spence, lesser known Arkansan outlaw and child of the early Twentieth Century Delta houseboat community known as the River People, this single S. J. intends to be the seed of a future full-length release composed all of songs inspired by local Arkansas history and family stories. As this song is featured on her local NPR affiliate KUAR 89.1's Arts & Letters program in its 2-part episode all about Helen Spence (air date for part one: May 10, 2019), Sooj realized it prudent to release this demo mix as a single, stark and sparse and raw though it may be. Every word of the lyrics is true, except that since the writing of this piece, Miss Spence's gravesite has finally received the memorial it deserves, thanks to the Morris Foundation and the tireless efforts of author Denise Parkinson, who wrote Daughter of the White River: Depression Era Treachery and Vengeance in the Arkansas Delta-the very book which inspired this song. The audiobook is a collaboration between Denise and S. J., and is coming soon to Audible. In the meantime, you can visit Helen's grave in the cemetery at St. Charles, Arkansas.

The bridge in the cover image is the historic White River Bridge at Clarendon, and it's under threat. Find out more about local conservation efforts here: www.whiteriverbridge.org

More about the Arts & Letters radio show:
www.ualrpublicradio.org/post/she-was-river-part-i

lyrics

Heaven is a river on a sticky summer day
when you're a daughter of the Delta
and the river's where you play
Miss Helen was the best of these
and now she's gone away.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Raised up right on a houseboat
back before the Dust Bowl came,
Helen left a mark on everyone
who knew her name.
They all recall her fondly,
though she met her end in shame.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Through the flood of '27,
hidden springs all kept their taste.
River People never let
a good thing go to waste.
When times got bad, they never saw
decisions made in haste.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Heaven is a cool Brush Arbor
by the riverside
but they say Helen lost her way for good
the day her daddy died.
Soon her mama followed,
but Miss Helen never cried.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Tame the girl from the river,
shoot her down there in the dust.
The river takes no prisoners and
The girl does what she must.
River Justice is the only kind I know to trust.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Heaven's in the hearts of those
who miss you when you go.
Helen made her way to town,
where the jury sat row by row.
Before their eyes, she shot the man
who laid her daddy low.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Heaven's in the hearts of those
who smile to speak your name
Regardless of the press men
who would glorify your shame.
She was "Arkansas' Own Gun Girl"
in a time of fickle fame.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

A killer and an orphan,
waiting for the court to say
if they'd rule for her release or keep her
always locked away,
Helen made an honest living
in the little town cafe.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

The owner's reputation
as a mean & handsy mess
Earned him nobody's sympathy
and bullets in his chest.
Though the law'd already let her go,
Miss Helen did confess.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Tame the girl from the river,
shoot her down there in the dust.
The river takes no prisoners and
The girl does what she must.
River Justice is the only kind I know to trust.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Heaven is a story shared at night
when work is through,
Shared with sisters in the lockup
who don't judge the things you do.
There were men who needed killin'
and your hands were ready to.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Cain't ketch the river's daughter
when she's running for the fence.
Just the first of many prison breaks
Miss Helen did attempt.
When they dragged her back, oh,
they whipped her 'til she wept.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

She saved her lockup sisters
when she ran away again
On a trip across three rivers
where the women would be sent
To earn the warden money
at the whim of wicked men.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Ten more lashes with the blacksnake
and they tossed her in a cage.
But just like that old summer sun,
her spirit kept ablaze
'til the warden set her up to die
the last escape she made.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Cage the girl, tame the river,
shoot her down there in the dust.
The river takes no prisoners and
The girl does what she must.
Maybe River Justice is the only kind to trust.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

You won't find the River People
on the Lower White today,
But you'll hear of River Justice
if you know the words to say.
As for River People's secrets,
well, they took 'em to the grave.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

There's a ghost for every river,
every road, and CCC
and the Corps of Engineers cain't have
these rivers running free.
There's no headstone, just a big old cedar
watching over me.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.
Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.

credits

released May 7, 2019
lyrics, music, vocals, percussion, mix, and cover design all by S. J. Tucker. Original photo by Denise Parkinson; used with her blessing.
Special thanks to Soulwriters 2 for the prompt that got this tune going back in 2017, and to Denise for telling Helen's story in prose.

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