Was John Michael Montgomery’s Song ‘The Little Girl’ Based on a True Story?

"We don't have a clue, but if it ain't true, it ought to be."

  • Published 4 November 2000

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John Michael Montgomery's song "The Little Girl" is based on a true story.

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An anecdote (of unknown origin) about an orphaned girl who sees a picture of Jesus in Sunday school and identifies him as the man who comforted her the night her father killed her mother and himself is a fairly typical example of glurge:

There was an atheist couple who had a daughter. The couple never told their daughter anything about the Lord.

One night, when the little girl was five years old, the parents fought with each other and the dad shot the mom, right in front of the child. Then, the dad shot himself. The little girl watched it all.

She was sent to a foster home. The foster mother was a Christian and took the child to church. On the first day of Sunday School, the foster mother told the teacher that the girl had never heard of Jesus, and to have patience with her. The teacher held up a picture of Jesus and said, “Does anyone know who this is?”

The little girl said, “I do. That’s the man who was holding me the night my parents died.”

The particular example would ordinarily be unremarkable save for one facet: In 2000 it was turned into a smash hit by Nashville songwriter Harley Allen and country singer John Michael Montgomery:

The song, titled “The Little Girl,” was penned by Allen after his brother forwarded him the above-quoted text via e-mail. “It moved me more than I’d been moved in years by a story,” Allen said. “I grabbed the guitar and just started writing. It didn’t take any time at all, about 10 to 15 minutes.”

According to USA Today, “Allen says he and his brother have tried to track the tale’s source, without any luck. It’s posted on dozens of Web sites — usually with a title such as ‘Held by Jesus’ or ‘And the Little Child Shall Lead Them’ — with no attribution. ‘We don’t have a clue” about its origin, Allen says, “but if it ain’t true, it ought to be.'”

Folklore is replete with tales of children who can see — and are saved by — helpful spirits, Jesus, or God, who guide and protect innocents from the deprivations of evil adults. The predatory adults in such stories are typically presented as non-religious or specifically non-Christian, while the young victims are characterized as being blamelessly non-religious because they are too young and unknowing to have yet made the conscious choice to accept God and Jesus.

A strange coincidence related to this song was that another country singer, Allison Moorer, released a new album (The Hardest Part) the same day as John Michael Montgomery came out with his album (Brand New Me) on which “The Little Girl” appeared. Moorer’s release also included a song (“Cold, Cold Earth,” the final, hidden track) about a father who shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself, only in Moorer’s case the story was all too true — the man and wife were her parents:

Moorer and [her sister Shelby] Lynne were teenagers when their father murdered their mother and then shot himself. On the new record’s hidden track, “Cold Cold Earth,” Moorer addresses the tragedy for the first time, telling the story with an almost clinical detachment. It’s the only song on the record she wrote alone, and the only one on which she doesn’t sing in the first person.

Moorer hid the track because she didn’t want the potentially tabloid-y nature of the song to overshadow the rest of the record. “Because of the way that drama and trauma and the soap opera aspect of people’s lives gets treated in the press, I didn’t want that to be the whole story,” she says, although she knows that many Nashville journalists have focused on little else. “Someone called me naive, and I may be. [But] I was prepared for a certain amount of questions about it, and if I hadn’t been prepared to talk about it, I never would have put that song on the record. I wouldn’t say, ‘OK, I’m going to sing this, but don’t you dare ask me a question about it.’ That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all.”