John Ferguson

To date, I've found nothing substantial about the incident commemorated in this ballad. In 2006, a contibutor to the message boards on Ancestry.com mentioned that his grandmother used to sing it, also that he was related to the Dave Williams mentioned in the song. Another reader, related to H. F. Holbrook, revealed that the name "Hige" was short for "Hargis." According to family lore both H. F. Holbrook and Dave Williams were acquitted on grounds of self-defense. The only source for the song I'm aware of is the 1937 master's thesis, Ballads and Songs, by Cratis Williams. Williams' headnote and lyrics are given below. (see also Kentucky Folklore Record 6:1 January, 1960)

Update March, 2016: A book about Cratis Williams (David Cratis Williams and Patricia Beaver, eds. Tales From Sacred Wind: Coming of Age in Appalachia, 2003) reveals that the Dave Williams in the ballad was his grandfather, David O. Williams, who became well-known on Caines Creek as a distiller in the days before Prohibition. "Though legally 'clean,' Dave Williams began to earn notoriety as a bit of a mountain 'bad man' prior even to the turn of the [20th] century, including through a well-publicized acquittal (along with Hige Holbrook) on charges of killing John Ferguson ("Abstract" 1893, 81)."

Given the 1893 citation, it appears the incident could not have occurred in 1901 as indicated in the ballad headnote.

"The events sung about here took place on Caines Creek in 1901 at the “grocery” of H. F. Holbrook. Ferguson and Williams got into a fight after Williams attempted to keep down trouble between Ferguson and Holbrook. They fought with knives, both Williams and Ferguson being seriously wounded. Williams stabbed Ferguson once, he jumped a five foot fence, ran to a walnut tree, and slumped down dead. The events as related in the ballad were not confirmed so in court."

Come all my friends and neighbors,
Come listen while I tell
The murder of John Ferguson
Of which you know full well.

It was down at. H. F. Holbrooks's
All on the Sabbath day;
Oh there they planned together
To take John's life away.

H. F. Holbrooks sent for John
To bring his wife and come down
And 'tend to the grocery
While he was to town.

John come to H. F. Holbrooks's
Incompanied [sic] by his wife;
But little did he think, dear friends,
That day he'd lose his life.

Hige and Foster drew their pistols,
John did not have a friend;
Not even to a pocketknife
His'n self to defend.

Dave and Pleas they pulled him out,
He says, "Boys, what does this mean?
O let me go, don't treat me so,
For I'm without a friend."

They would not heed his pleading,
His fatal time had come;
Dave plunged his knife into his heart,
He started for to run.

The last desare protested him1
To see his wife again;
But the chance it was denied him,
His heart's blood fell like rain.

He raised his hands up to God
And fell upon the ground;
And there he died [a] true brave man
As ever could be found.

Hige said, "Now, Dave, you have killed him,
You are a friend of mine;
And I have got the money
And I will pay the fine.

"O Dave, you shall not suffer,
The laws you need not fear;
For on the day of trial
The band will swear you clear."

John's friends soon did gather in,
With weeping hearts did cry;
To think about the cruel death
Poor Johnnie had to die.

His wife was a-kneelin' by his side
A-takin' her sad mourn;
To think that John was gone from her
To never more return.

No one to cheer nor comfort,
No word of hope to tell;
And there upon the cold damp ground2
He has bid this world farewell.

Poor John sleeps in his cold tomb,
We can't tell where he has gone;
While those are here that murdered him
Will shortly follow on.

I believe his sins are cast upon
The doers of this deed,
And in that awful day to come
It will cause their hearts to bleed.

Come all ye honest and upright men,
And lend a helping hand;
Take this matter to yourself
And do jestis [justice] to this band.

For if you don't the time will come,
It won't be very long;
Some other man will have to go
The way poor John has gone.

Jestis [Justice] says they ought to go
And serve ten years or more
For a-killin' of John Ferguson.
He has left the earthly shore.

But if they don’t git Jestice here
When they meet their God before
That mighty judgment seat
They’ll get their jest reward.

1Perhaps: “The last desire possess-ed him.”

2Cratis Williams was unsure of the line division in the last stanza.


Last Update: March 19, 2016