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Caroline Dye of Newport was not a musician, but she figures prominently in several important pieces of American recorded music. Dye was known as “Aunt Caroline.” She was born to slaves in Bird, in Jackson County –- some, however, say she was born in South Carolina. Sometime after the Civil War, she married Martin Dye of Sulphur Rock in Independence County. They also lived in Elgin in Jackson County. No one is sure when she was born; some say as early as 1810. And estimates of her death are as late as 1944, but most agree she died in 1918.
One thing not in question is Aunt Caroline Dye’s reputation as a psychic.
Caroline Dye apparently had “the gift,” even when she was young. But she only became known nationally for being a seer after the Dyes moved to Newport around the turn of the century. They lived on Remmel Avenue. Composer W.C. Handy said Caroline Dye was “the gypsy” mentioned in his 1914 song “St. Louis Blues,” one of the most covered songs ever.
Nine years later, with Dye’s mystic reputation further solidified, Handy wrote about Dye again. He mentions her by name in his 1923 song “Sundown Blues.” Folklorist John Quincy Wolf Jr. wrote that in her heyday, Dye was so well known in the South “it is doubtful that even the name of President Wilson was more generally known.”
In May 1930, the influential Memphis Jug Band recorded its own ode to Dye. But somehow the song came out titled “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues.” The song also places Dye’s hometown in Newport News — but that may have been for irony’s sake, or because the song’s music and a verse is lifted from the band’s own 1927 song “Newport News Blues.”
Thirty years after the Memphis Jug Band recorded the “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues,” band leader Will Shade said this about Dye: “White and colored would go to her. You sick in bed, she raise the sick. ... Had that much brains — smart lady. ... That’s the kind of woman she was. Aunt Caroline Dye, she was the worst woman in the world. Had that much sense.”
Handy said he got some of his song lyrics from folk sayings, and that “going to go see Aunt Caroline” was a catch phrase among blacks.
Dye also appears in Johnnie Temple’s “Hoodoo Woman,” recorded in 1937. Temple gets both her name and hometown correct, singing “I’m going to Newport, just to see Aunt Caroline Dye.”
Unbelievably, Dye appears in a line of at least one more blues song, “Wang Dang Doodle,” popularized by Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor: “Tell Peg and Caroline Dye/We gonna have a time ...”
Dye didn’t use a crystal ball and seldom read palms, and wouldn’t help those who sought romantic advice. But Dye often used a deck of cards, and Handy’s lyric goes, “her cards don’t lie.” Dye’s specialty was the recovery of lost or stolen items, even livestock. She never advertised, or even charged for her services, but accepted gratuities. A landowner and a rich woman, perhaps not even Aunt Caroline herself could have foreseen how successful she would become.
Dye, called “one of the most celebrated women ever to live in the Midsouth,” is said to have died Sept. 26, 1918, at 108 years old. She is buried in Jackson County
• “St. Louis Blues”
• “Sundown Blues”
• “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues”
• “Hoodoo Woman”
• “Wang Dang Doodle”