Tom Dooley (song)
"Tom Dooley" is a traditional North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina by Tom Dula (whose name in the local dialect was pronounced "Dooley"). One of the more famous murder ballads, a popular hit version recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio, which reached No. 1 in Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and also was top 10 on the Billboard R&B chart, and appeared in the Cashbox Country Music Top 20.
The song was selected as one of the American Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
"Tom Dooley" fits within the wider genre of Appalachian "sweetheart murder ballads". A local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragedy, titled "Tom Dooley", shortly after Dula was hanged. In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song, which was misleading only in that he didn't write it. There are several earlier known recordings, notably one that Grayson and Whitter made in 1929, approximately 10 years before Proffitt cut his own recording.
The Kingston Trio took their version from Frank Warner's singing. Warner had learned the song from Proffitt, who learned it from his Aunt Nancy Prather, whose parents had known both Laura Foster and Tom Dula. In a 1967 interview, Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio recounts first hearing the song from another performer, and then being criticized and sued for taking credit for the song.
Supported by the testimony of Anne and Frank Warner, Frank Proffitt was eventually acknowledged by the courts as the preserver of the original version of the song, and the Kingston Trio were ordered to pay royalties to him for their uncredited use of it.
In 1866, Laura Foster was murdered. Confederate veteran Tom Dula, Foster's lover and the father of her unborn child, was convicted of her murder and hanged May 1, 1868. Foster had been stabbed to death with a large knife, and the brutality of the attack partly accounted for the widespread publicity of the murder and subsequent trial received.
Anne Foster Melton, Laura's cousin, had been Dula's lover from the time he was twelve and until he left for the Civil War – even after Anne married an older man named James Melton. When Dula returned, he became a lover again to Anne, then Laura, then their cousin Pauline Foster. Pauline's comments led to the discovery of Laura's body and accusations against both Tom and Anne. Anne was subsequently acquitted in a separate trial, based on Dula's word that she had nothing to do with the killing. Dula's enigmatic statement on the gallows that he had not harmed Foster but still deserved his punishment led to press speculation that Melton was the actual killer and that Dula simply covered for her. (Melton, who had once expressed jealousy of Dula's purported plans to marry Foster, died either in a carting accident or by going insane a few years after the homicide, depending on the version.)
Thanks to the efforts of newspapers such as The New York Times and to the fact that former North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance represented Dula pro bono, Dula's murder trial and hanging were given widespread national publicity. A local poet, Thomas C. Land, wrote a song titled "Tom Dooley" about Dula's tragedy soon after the hanging. Combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, Land's song further cemented Dula's place in North Carolina legend and is still sung today throughout North Carolina.
A man named "Grayson", mentioned in the song as pivotal in Dula's downfall, has sometimes been characterized as a romantic rival of Dula's or a vengeful sheriff who captured him and presided over his hanging. Some variant lyrics of the song portray Grayson in that light, and the spoken introduction to the Kingston Trio version did the same. Col. James Grayson was actually a Tennessee politician who had hired Dula on his farm when the young man fled North Carolina under suspicion and was using a false name. Grayson did help North Carolinians capture Dula and was involved in returning him to North Carolina but otherwise played no role in the case.
Dula was tried in Statesville because it was believed he could not get a fair trial in Wilkes County. He was given a new trial on appeal but he was again convicted and hanged on May 1, 1868. On the gallows, Dula reportedly stated, "Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn't harm a hair on the girl's head."
Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y"[clarification needed] is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry". The confusion was compounded by the fact that Dr. Tom Dooley, an American physician known for international humanitarian work, was at the height of his fame in 1958 when the Kingston Trio version became a major hit.
Many renditions of the song have been recorded, most notably:
- In 1929, G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter made the first recorded version of Land's song by a group well known at the time, for Victor.
- Frank Warner, Elektra, 1952. Warner, a folklorist, unaware of the 1929 recording, in 1940 took down the song from Frank Proffitt and passed it to Alan Lomax who published it in Folk Song: USA.
- On March 30, 1953, the CBS radio series Suspense broadcast a half-hour "Tom Dooley" drama loosely based on the song, which was sung during the program by actor Harry Dean Stanton. While not issued as a commercial recording, transcription discs of the broadcast eventually were digitized and circulated by old time radio collectors.[better source needed]
- The Folksay Trio, which featured Erik Darling, Bob Carey and Roger Sprung, issued the first post-1950 version of the song for American Folksay-Ballads and Dances, Vol. 2 on the Stinson label in 1953. Their version was noteworthy for including a pause in the line "Hang down your head Tom...Dooley". The group reformed in 1956 as The Tarriers, featuring Darling, Carey and Alan Arkin, and released another version of "Tom Dooley" for The Tarriers on the Glory label in 1957.
- The Kingston Trio recorded the most popular version of the song in 1958 for Capitol. This recording sold in excess of six million copies, topping the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is often credited with starting the "folk music boom" of the late 1950s and 1960s. It only had three verses (and the chorus four times). This recording of the song has been inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress and been honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. The Grammy Foundation named it one of the Songs of the Century.
- Neil Young and Crazy Horse recorded an eight-minute version on their 2012 album Americana, on which they retitled the song to the proper spelling "Tom Dula" and pronounced it in such a way as to make it a political statement against former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
"Tom Dooley" prompted a number of parodies, either as part of other songs or as entire songs. For example:
- The Four Preps used this song and "Worried Man Blues" to make fun of The Kingston Trio in their song "More Money For You and Me".
- Ella Fitzgerald drops an altered line from the song into a recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" on her 1967 album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.
- The Incredible Bongo Band recorded the song "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Your Tie's Caught In Your Zipper" (1972).
- The Smothers Brothers did a version on their album "The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers! Recorded at the Purple Onion, San Francisco" where they referenced the lawsuit against The Kingston Trio by claiming that Dickie Smothers had written it and The Kingston Trio had stolen it.
- The Capitol Steps used this song to make fun of Tom Daschle on their 2003 album Between Iraq and a Hard Place
For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio
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In popular culture
The third and final verse of Stonewall Jackson's crossover hit song Waterloo of 1958 referenced Tom Dooley with the lyrics "Now he swings where the little birdie sings, and that's where Tom Dooley met his Waterloo."
The Kingston Trio hit inspired the film, The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), starring Michael Landon, co-starring Richard Rust. A Western set after the Civil War, it was not about traditional Tom Dula legends or the facts of the case, but a fictional treatment tailored to fit the lyrics of the song.
The song was parodied in episode No. 702 of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Crow T. Robot, motivated by one actor's resemblance to Thomas Dewey, sang a version beginning "Hang down your head, Tom Dewey."
In the 1980 film Friday the 13th, the campers in the opening scene start to sing the song. The opening scene is set in 1958, the year the Kingston Trio version of the song debuted.
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