Library Notes: A new old ballad of Otto Wood
Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2023
By David Lamanno
Rowan Public Library
Head to the corner of East Innes and Lee streets in Salisbury and you’ll see a metal historical marker embedded in the sidewalk. It alerts sharp-eyed passers-by that this is the block where wanted man Otto Wood lost a gunfight with Salisbury police chief, Robert Lee Rankin on New Year’s Eve in 1930. At the top of the plaque appear the words to the final verse of a song written by Walter “Kid” Smith. The “Kid,” and his musical cohorts, known as the Carolina Buddies, recorded the song “Otto Wood, the Bandit,” less than 60 days after Wood was shot. The Carolina Buddies, along with two other musical acts from the region that released songs about Wood, were not about to let a good crime story go to waste. Especially one involving Otto Wood, the freewheeling strong-arm robber, escape artist and convicted murderer.
As the producer of Rowan Public Library’s folk music podcast, “Come Gather ‘Round Good People,” I find the songs and tales about Wood to be perfectly suited as topics for exploration. The podcast is dedicated to informing listeners about the stories behind highlighted folk songs with a local, regional or state-wide connection. In the showdown between Wood and Rankin we have a gruesome event that occurred just a few blocks from where the library now stands and then, with the sound of gunfire still practically reverberating down Innes Street, three 78 rpm records about Wood’s deeds and downfall were released. This was beginning to look like librarian-musician podcasting paradise! Once I began my research, I learned there was an even earlier attempt to memorialize Wood. More on that in a moment.
Otto Wood, a Wilkes County native, started making a bad name for himself in the public eye in 1907. The Statesville News and Record reported that Wood and two other scamps stole a boat on the Yadkin River, floated downstream in idyllic bliss, and then sold the vessel to a gullible person on the shoreline. Wood was just 14 and it was all downhill for the next 23 years. The fifth episode of the podcast is titled, “A Ballad of Otto Wood.” It will touch on some highlights of Wood’s exploits during those years, reveal some foreshadowing from Rankin’s time as a deputy sheriff, and examine some details about those 78 records.
Now, back to the songs. It turns out the very first ode to Wood was printed in the Greensboro News just over a week after his death. Titled “A Ballad of Otto Wood” and written by someone with the initials O.J., the lyrics end with this postscript, “No copyright has been applied for the above and all banjo-pickers are invited to step right in and help themselves.” In episode five I accept O.J.’s challenge and attempt to wrangle a tune from O.J.’s lyrics and of course, everyone is invited to hear the results.
The podcast will be available beginning Monday at 9 a.m. Come Gather ‘Round Good People can be found at SoundCloud.com (type your search exactly like this: bit.ly/RPLSoundCloud). While you are waiting, be sure to check out past episodes.
For those interested in learning more about Otto Wood and R. L. Rankin, please visit the Edith M. Clark History Room located at the main branch of the Rowan Public Library in Salisbury. There you will find an excellent 2021 biography of Wood written by Trevor McKenzie as well as other source materials for reference use.
If any readers know of Rowan County-based musicians that perform traditional music and who would like to share their stories, please contact the author at David.Lamanno@rowancountync.gov.