“Banks of the Ohio” is one of the first songs I learned in the bluegrass genre. It’s a simple little three-chorder with some classic bluegrass themes: unrequited young love, murder, guilt—it’s got it all.
I was really new to bluegrass guitar when I learned this one, and I remember being at a barbecue with some folks from my wife’s office. As so often happens at these events, a guitar came out, and eventually somebody said, “Erik, we hear you play guitar—why don’t you play something for us?”
I literally had nothing else in my repertoire at this point, so I sat down and played a bunch of lawyers this cheery song about a guy who drowns his girlfriend in the river because she doesn’t want to marry him. It brought the room down a bit. I think they were sorry they asked.
This one goes way back, and you’ll hear bits and pieces of this story in various other old folk songs. People were recording it in the earliest days of country music, including Bill and Charlie Monroe.
Folkways has issued a recording of Bill Monroe performing it with Doc Watson in 1963 in the early days of the folk revival, and Tony Rice has a beautiful version on his eponymous 1977 solo album.
Fun fact: “Banks of the Ohio” was Olivia Newton-John’s first No. 1 hit in Australia—eight years before the movie Grease.
If you ever get into crosspicking, give it a try on this one. Each phrase ends with a long, drawn out melody note that lends itself really well to those syncopated, three-note picking patterns. Two of the masters, George Shuffler and James Alan Shelton, prove it in the video at the bottom.
“Banks of the Ohio” lyrics and chords
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