Nellie’s Golden Hair

Written by Barry Etris

As you head south from Atlanta the red clay gradually changes to sand and the landscape goes completely flat where the southern part of Georgia, along with the Florida peninsula, was once under the Atlantic Ocean.

If you go in a southeasterly direction, as you near Brunswick in the corner formed by the ocean and the state line, you will encounter the famous Marshes of Glynn described so eloquently by native son Sidney Lanier.

A few miles west, near Waycross, lies the rugged Okefenokee Swamp, covering an area of over six hundred square miles. Christened by the Indians, the translation is “Land of the Trembling Earth.” It is unique. (Many of you will probably remember the movie Lure of the Wilderness, filmed there in the fifties.)

Several years ago, I was on a deer hunting trip in Georgia’s Piedmont area that runs across the middle of the state where the deer population is most heavily concentrated. While reclining on my tree stand twenty feet up a young poplar in quiet surroundings, I was reminded of past journeys down to the Okefenokee and a song idea began to form.

Spurred on by the memory of black waters and deep shadows among the bull rushes beneath the brooding cypress, I had the song written in my head by sundown … (That’s why the deer are in very little danger while I’m in the woods).

I wrote the end of the song first, as I often do, and took a few liberties with the truth. (Poetic license I think it’s called.) I know that silver-tip grizzlies are members of the brown bear family, but a “big brown grizzly bear” just didn’t have the impact I wanted; neither will you find any grizzlies among the black bear in the Okefenokee. Most importantly, before the high sheriff of Ware County comes after me, the story is completely fictional.

I want to thank Bob Shane and the Kingston Trio for recording “Nellie”, and spreading it around the globe in a string of concerts that would make a traveling salesman feel like a recluse.

Through Bob, a trio in Tokyo recorded it and a group in Canada is currently getting enough radio play to fatten my foreign royalty checks and keep me a few steps ahead of those little olive-green trucks the power company sends out to turn your lights off.

I included this composition as a dedication to the late Roger Gambill, who sang Nellie” so well, and lived life with the same gusto and deep feeling he put into songs

NELLIE’S GOLDEN HAIR
Her daddy was as rough as the teeth in a rusty chain saw,
her mama was a hard drinking, leather tough toothless hag.
A back water life made pretty things hard to come by,
and soft little Nellie was the only pretty thing they had.

How I’d love to hear the whippoorwill calling to me,
made me feel as wild as a big black grizzly bear.
Made me feel as warm as fox fire over black water,
to see that Okefenokee moon shining through
little Nellie’s golden hair.

Nellie was as pretty as an Okefenokee sundown,
a barefoot beauty in a faded old cotton dress.
Every night Nellie would meet me down by the water,
with her tiny heart pounding like a wild thing
against my chest.

How I’d love to hear the whippoorwill calling to me,
made me feel as wild as a big black grizzly bear.
Made me feel as warm as fox fire over black water,
to see that Okefenokee moon shining through
little Nellie’s golden hair.

Nellie had a fear of what swamp life could do to beauty,
and looking in the mirror her ma’s old face to see,
Nellie had a dream of making it to Savannah,
so Nellie just laughed when I begged her to marry me.

Nellie didn’t see my eyes flashing in the moonlight,
Nellie didn’t see me raise my trembling hand.
Nellie didn’t feel a thing when she hit the water,
Nellie went down and Nellie never rose again.

How I love to hear the whippoorwill calling to me,
makes me feel as wild as a big black grizzly bear.
Makes my heart as cold as swamp fog over the marshes,
to see that Okefenokee black water flowing
through Nellie’s golden hair.