NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – The faint swoosh of cars barreling down Route 1 could be heard in the distance where some leafless trees cast shadows across the asphalt and the sun just couldn’t warm the cold ground.
This fenced-off section in the expansive parking lot behind the AMC Theatres is the final, if not unlikely and lonely, resting place for Mary Ellis.
People who know her as a roadside curiosity probably aren’t familiar with her legend: She fell in love with a sea captain and died waiting for his return.
That’s what has inspired Andy Bernstein, a singer/songwriter who has been part of the New Brunswick music scene since 1990s, to write a song about Mary.
“Mary Ellis” is a guitar-laden, bouncy retelling of the life of the woman who died in 1828 with a broken heart, waiting to be wed.
Bernstein is using his folksy voice in hopes of transforming Mary’s legacy from oddity to dignity.
“There are going to be people parking in that parking lot for years to come, wondering why there is a tombstone in this parking lot. I’m hoping ... that they’ll dig deeper,” Bernstein said.
“Mary Ellis” was originally recorded in 2016, but there’s a new version on the album “Look What the Cat Dragged In” with the band, SoulFolk.
The lyrics speak to Ellis’ tragic story, from the time she moved to New Brunswick in the late 1700s to the time she fell in love with a captain who promised to marry her when he returned from his voyage.
“Well she watched the ships roll in, but the years rolled by instead as Mary grew old and finally died,” Bernstein sang in his song.
The process of writing about Mary was cathartic for Bernstein, who lost his lover, Lori Tallman Martin, in a car wreck in 2016. Writing “Mary Ellis,” he said, was uplifting and heartening.
“It’s always [reassuring] to know that you are not alone with tragedy or sadness,” Bernstein said.
“As a songwriter you look for analogies. You don’t just try to write hits; you try and write things that express your feelings.”
Bernstein said that he originally used a fiddle in the folk tune to emulate Ellis’ crying, but the new version is more like a rock ballad.
Bernstein said Ellis’ headstone stood out to him because “it was on a little mound higher than the rest of the cemetery, and it was surrounded by wild roses and a little iron fence.”
The headstone also faced the Raritan River so Ellis could continue watching for her captain to return, he said.
Now, “her body lays in a movie theater parking lot above the rising tide,” sang Bernstein.
Unfortunately, the headstone now faces away from the Raritan River, Bernstein said.
There has long been rumored that the 1972 No. 1 hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by The Looking Glass (whose members met as students at Rutgers) was inspired by Mary.
So, Bernstein called Lurie, who said any similarities are completely coincidental.
The song “Mary Ellis,” as well as the rest of the new album, “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” is available for purchase at any TuneCore platforms.