Downriver from the Moundsville Prison Graveyard: Story of a Lyric

This post has been updated to include information from an email from Mark Kozelek.

When singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek was a teenager in the 1980s, he used to visit Moundsville prison. “We’d sit on a curb outside of a residential neighborhood and watch guards enter and exit the front gate,” he wrote me in an email. “They always looked so brooding. We were amazed that spooky old prison sat right in the center of a neighborhood.”

It was those visits, part of an Ohio childhood, that were the ingredients of his 2013 song “You Missed My Heart”, which Phoebe Bridgers covered on her 2017 debut studio album Stranger in the Alps. The tune ends with the singer repeating, as if chanting a religious mantra: “Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.” I’ve seen the lyric popping up lone, especially on Twitter.

A mention of Moundsville by one of the brightest young musical artists in America — Bridgers’s eloquent songwriting, soulful storytelling, and “frank anxious music” have earned Grammy nominations and comparisons to Bob Dylan — caught our attention here at the blog promoting the PBS film Moundsville.

“You Missed My Heart” is a long (over 6 minutes) first-person murder ballad, narrated from the grave by the killer. It’s a story about not hitting your mark: The murderer stabs his old flame’s new lover in the wrong place, just as the ex tells him he didn’t love her right. “You missed my heart,” she says. And, after “the priest read my last rites/And just before everything went dark, I said, He missed my heart.” The narrator is probably talking about the guard who killed him, but couldn’t pierce his love. He could also be referring to the priest failing to connect him to God.

But what’s “downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard” is not the scene of the crime, or where our antihero is buried after being “shot down by a tower guard” trying to escape. Instead, the graveyard is a place from the past, a geographical marker of the memory of “a childhood scene, night sky, moon beams/Fishing with friends, sittn’ in the wild reeds/Watching the Ohio River flow at night/Waitn’ for the bullheaded catfishes to bite/Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.”

As Gene Saunders points out in Moundsville, “there’s great fishing” on the Ohio River. “My friends and I did do a lot of fishing along the Ohio River in West Virginia – but from my memory – it was in Parkersburg,” Kozelek wrote in his email. In the song, the narrator nostalgically recalls “driving into Wheeling, showing her off/Backyard barbecues and reunions in the park.”

The “Moundsville prison” is actually the former West Virginia state penitentiary, located in town across the street from the old Native American burial mound the town is named after. The prison, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1995, housed thousands of convicts, including Charles Manson’s mom, and was used to shoot famous movies like Fools’ Parade and Night of the Hunter. For generations, the pen was a part of the fabric of the town. Residents walked there to watch baseball games inside. Prisoners decorated a Christmas tree atop the Native American mound.

The Moundsville prison, not to be a confused with a smaller, much more modern regional correctional facility in town, is now a tourist attraction, luring visitors to see the electric chair, “Old Sparky”, and paranormal investigators hunting ghosts, one of the main draws for a postindustrial town. And it does have a graveyard, which Kozelek told me he’s not visited. It’s off the beaten path, a few miles from the grounds framed by the Gothic castle structure, in a secluded area. I visited with Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguye, a Catholic priest from Vietnam based in Moundsville. “I like to go and pray for the souls of prisoners buried there,” he told me. “They were lonely in life, I imagine, and God loves them, too.”

Father That Son Ngoc Nguye at the Moundsville prison graveyard

I reached out to Bridgers, who is from Los Angeles, but didn’t get a reply. I’d love to know if she’s visited this segment of the Ohio River, where Lady Gaga’s mom grew up.

Kozelek, the songwriter, and chief vocalist of the indie band Sun Kil Moon, is from Massillon, Ohio, which is not on the Ohio River. It’s close, however, so it makes sense that he visited Moundsville when he was young. (Kozelek has been the source of controversy recently, including accusations of sexual misconduct, which he’s denied.)

In a 2018 interview with Bridgers, Kozelek said the song came from a bad dream:

The first part of the song was literally taken from a nightmare that I had in a hotel room in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. In reality, I was frustrated with a repair man and then dreamed that I pulled a knife out of a drawer and stabbed him and that he turned to me and said “you missed my heart”. The song was written in that moment. I don’t recall how much time I spent writing it, but not long.

“You Missed My Heart” is an old-fashioned murder ballad, reminiscent of Pretty Polly, Delia’s Gone, and Frankie and Johnny. But in its painful, nostalgic longing, it’s also a taste of Ohio River summers, when the beer was cold, the factories hummed, and going to see a new movie in Wheeling was the greatest thrill on Earth.

John W. Miller

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