Tom Dooley (song)

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"Tom Dooley"
Recorded by

Kingston Trio

Music sample

"Tom Dooley" is an old North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina. It is best known today because of a hit version recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio. This version was a multi-format hit, reaching #1 in Billboard, the Billboard R&B listing, and appearing in the Cashbox country music top 20. It fits within the wider genre of Appalachian "sweetheart murder ballads".

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.[1]

In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song. Although there are several earlier known recordings, notably the one by 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 1866, Laura Foster was murdered. Confederate veteran Tom Dula (Dooley), Foster's lover and probable fiancé, was convicted of her murder and hanged May 1, 1868. Foster was stabbed to death with a large knife; the brutality of the attack partly accounted for the widespread publicity the murder and subsequent trial received.

Dula had a lover, prior to his leaving for the war, named Anne Melton, a cousin of Foster. Her comments led to the discovery of Foster's body, but Melton was acquitted in a separate trial based on Dula's word. 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 insane a few years after the homicide. 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 popular song about Dula's tragedy after the hanging.

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[2] 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. His alleged accomplice, Jack Keaton, was set free. 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" 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.

In a 1967 interview, Nick Reynolds recounts first hearing the song from another performer, and then being criticized and sued for taking credit for the song.[2]

The doleful ballad was first sung shortly after the execution and is still commonly sung in North Carolina.


Several notable recordings have been made:

  • Grayson and Whitter, Victor, 1929. The first recorded version by a group well known at the time.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.[3]
  • Paul Clayton, a singer-songwriter and folklorist, recorded "Tom Dooley" (as "Tom Dula") on Bloody Ballads: British and American Murder Ballads for Riverside Records in 1956.[4]
  • The Kingston Trio, Capitol, 1958. 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 boom" of the late 1950s and 1960s.[2] 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[5] and been honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.[6]
  • Lonnie Donegan, also 1958. This version charted in the United Kingdom simultaneously with the Kingston Trio's. Its uptempo skiffle style was a contrast to the U.S. version's slower arrangement.
  • Line Renaud recorded a French-language version, "Fais Ta Prière (Tom Dooley)", in 1959. The song was released on Renaud's album Les souvenirs sont faits de ça, and is also available on the compilation "Line: 100 chansons."
  • Les Compagnons de la chanson also recorded "Tom Dooley (Fais Ta Prière)" in February 1959 (Pathé-Marconi record : PAM-77.260).
  • Doc Watson, Vanguard Records, 1964. Watson performed the older version of the song, similar to Grayson and Whitter, that he had learned from his grandmother.
  • The Hiltonaires recorded a Mento (Jamaican folk) version of the song in 1965 for legendary Jamaican record label 'Studio One', released on their album Ska-Motion In Ska-lip-so in 1966.
  • Sweeney's Men, 1967, on their first, eponymous album. The lyrics differ from those as sung by the Kingston Trio.
  • Bill Morrissey & Greg Brown recorded a version in 1993 using the title "Tom Dula" and credited Frank Profitt as songwriter.
  • Rob Ickes recorded a version on his album "Hard Times" in 1997 as a bluegrass song.
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded a version on their 2006 album Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind.
  • Neil Young together with Crazy Horse recorded an eight minutes long version on their 2012 album Americana, retitling the song to the proper spelling "Tom Dula" and pronouncing it in such a way as to make it a political statement against former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
  • Macabre Minstrels (a side project of the metal band Macabre) recorded a version on their 2002 EP Morbid Campfire Songs.


Tom Dooley prompted a number of parodies, either as part of other songs (for example, Ella Fitzgerald drops an altered line from the song into a recording of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) or as entire songs, including one called Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Your Tie's Caught In Your Zipper by the Incredible Bongo Band in 1972.

The song and legend were parodied by a one-record novelty act called Waldo, Dudley and Dora on a 45 rpm Grayson Goofed, issued as Awful Records release #PU-1. Verses sung to the Tom Dooley melody alternate with mini-skits, as "John" Grayson's public reputation erodes from "a fine man" to "a stoolie" (i.e., stool pigeon) to "a gink".

The song was often parodied by the Smothers Brothers as Tom Crudely.

It has been parodied or used in many television shows, including:

Chart positions[edit]

For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio[7]

Chart (1958) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 1
Australian Singles Chart 1
Norwegian Singles Chart 1
Canadian Singles Chart 1
Italian Singles Chart 1
U.K. Singles Chart 5
South African Charts 8
Preceded by
"It's Only Make Believe"
by Conway Twitty
Billboard Hot 100 number-one single
November 17, 1958 - November 23, 1958 (1 week)
Succeeded by
"To Know Him Is to Love Him"
by The Teddy Bears


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.

Song books[edit]

  • Blood, Peter; Patterson, Annie (1992). Rise Up Singing. Quaker Song. Amherst, Ma: Sing Out Publications. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-881322-13-9. 
  • Lomax, Alan; Lomax, John A. (1947). Folk Song U.S.A. Best Loved American Folk Songs (1 ed.). New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 - Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles.  Track 5.
  3. ^ Curry, Peter J. "Tom Dooley: The Ballad That Started The Folk Boom". The Kingston Trio Place. 
  4. ^ Wirz, Stefan. "Paul Clayton Discography". American Music. 
  5. ^ "The Full National Recording Registry". The Library of Congress. Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Award: Past Recipients". The Recording Academy/ Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  7. ^ Rubeck, Blake, Shaw, et al. The Kingston Trio On Record. Kingston Korner LLC, 1986. p.164.