I always get blowback from my family about this story. I expect to catch hell again. I love y'all and I understand, but really you should stop reading now. Okay. Up to you.
I learned this story from a newscast thirteen years after the fact, which is a disappointing way to hear that your grandfather was murdered. Let me start here:
My grandmother, Pauline Barfield, died of a brain aneurysm in 1969. My grandfather, Jennings, had emphysema and needed care. Velma Bullard Burke was a coworker with Pauline at a department store and had already come in to help care for Jennings.
After Pauline died, Jennings married Velma. That was August of 1970. I was born in November. There are pictures of Jennings holding me, but I don't remember him. In the pictures, his enormous hands make me look about the size of a kitten.
In March of 1971, when I was four months old, Jennings died of what was then determined to be heart failure. Velma moved into her parents' home in another part of Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town where I was born. In December of 1974, Velma's mother Lillian showed symptoms of a serious stomach illness and died after being admitted to the hospital. There was no diagnosis or autopsy.
What only a few people knew about Velma is that she was addicted to prescription drugs. After Lillian died, Velma served six months in prison for writing bad checks. After Velma's release, she worked as a home health nurse for an elderly couple, Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. A couple of years later, Montgomery Edwards died. A few weeks after, Dollie Edwards also died from an undiagnosed stomach illness.
Velma Barfield went on to care for another elderly couple, John Henry and Record Lee. John Henry Lee died within months from what doctors said was a severe stomach virus. Soon after, Velma's boyfriend Stuart Taylor began to complain of severe stomach pain. He was admitted to the hospital and was dead within a matter of days. An autopsy was ordered. Before the autopsy was returned, Velma's sister called the police and told them that Velma had poisoned Taylor and others.
Velma confessed to poisoning the Edwards, John Henry Lee, and her own mother, Lillian Burke, claiming that she had only wanted to make them ill in order to hide the fact that she was stealing money from them to support her drug use. Later, she confessed to killing Stuart Taylor. She never confessed to killing my grandfather. Velma was convicted of one account of first-degree murder in 1978. She was sentenced to death.
In 1984, I was thirteen years old. I saw a newscast about a grandmother about to be executed in Raleigh. It was, of course, big news. There were protests and appeals for clemency. Her last name was Barfield. I had never met anyone outside my mother's family with that name. So I started asking questions. That's how I found out my grandfather was murdered.
Velma's legal appeals had been denied. Governor Jim Hunt denied the requests for clemency. Velma was given a choice between gas and lethal injection. Margie Velma Bullard Burke Barfield was executed on November 2nd 1984 at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C. She was the first woman put to death by lethal injection in the United States, and the last woman to be executed in the state of North Carolina.
Fifteen years later, I was taking a coffee break with my friend Jerry Brown. We were building his studio and, in between construction, recording what would be my first album. I told him the story I just told you.
Jerry said, "You mean to tell me you haven't written a song about that?" And he sent me home to work on it.
It took me a long time to write this song. I read old newspaper articles. I found a book that Velma wrote while in prison, called "Woman On Death Row." I asked my family questions, but they didn't want to talk about it. Jerry Bledsoe wrote 'Death Sentence' about the murders and no one in the family would talk to him either.
Who can blame them? The only other person in my mother's family who seems to have come to terms with it is also a writer. I think telling a hard story is the foundation of healing. I think reading a tragic story is moving but writing it can save your life.
One evening, I was about to rehearse with a friend of mine in what used to be High Strung Instrument Repair above Ninth Street in Durham, North Carolina. My friend got a phone call and I picked out a dark new melody while I waited for him. These lyrics came pouring out just as they are, pulled and shaped by months of research and contemplation into this simple and gripping old-time murder ballad. When my friend got off the phone, I played it for him.
This song has been covered more than any other song I've written. Jack Lawrence recorded it. Larry Keel played it on tour. Before I took the stage for the first time at Merlefest, I got word that Sam Bush had already played this song in his set across campus.
You can listen to and purchase "Velma" here: https://jonathanbyrd.bandcamp.com/track/velma
You can order the album Wildflowers on CD here: http://www.waterbug.com/wordpress/product/wildflowers/
Thanks for reading and listening. Your fan,
P.S. I'm playing in Ontario and Quebec next weekend. I tend to sell out shows up there, so buy your tickets now! Thanks