Tom Dooley (song)
"Tom Dooley" is a North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County, North Carolina, allegedly by Tom Dula. The song is best known today because of a hit version recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio. This version was a multi-format hit, which reached #1 in Billboard and the Billboard R&B listing, and appeared 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.
A local poet named Thomas Land wrote a song about the tragedy, titled "Tom Dooley" (which was how Dula's name was pronounced), shortly after Dula was hanged. In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax inaccurately 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, 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 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 both Anne, then Laura, then their cousin Pauline Foster. It was Pauline's comments that led to the discovery of Foster'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 popular song about Dula's tragedy soon after Dula was hanged, titled "Tom Dooley". This, combined with the widespread publicity the trial received, further cemented Dula’s place in North Carolina legend. Land's song 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" 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.
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Several notable recordings have been made:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lonnie Donegan covered The Kingston Trio's version of Land's song in the UK, later in 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).
- The George Garabedian Troubadours recorded a Cha-cha-cha version in 1959 which is referenced in Sam Cooke's song Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha
- Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album On the Sentimental Side (1962).
- 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.
- Television host Jack Narz recorded his version of "Tom Dooley" for his album Sing the Folk Hits With Jack Narz in 1959.
- Frank Proffitt sings the song on "Newport Folk Festival 1964: The Evening Concerts, Volume 1", Vanguard Records, 1964.
- 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.
- Bill Morrissey & Greg Brown recorded a version in 1993 using the title "Tom Dula" and credited Frank Profitt as songwriter.
- Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded a version on their album Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind (2006).
- Neil Young together with Crazy Horse recorded an eight-minute version on their 2012 album Americana (2012), 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.
- Macabre Minstrels (a side project of the metal band Macabre) recorded a version on their EP Morbid Campfire Songs (2002).
- In 1973, German Schlager singer Heino sang a German version of the song entitled "Tom Dooley" giving credit to Dave Guard, one of the founders of The Kingston Trio. (It was the third song on his album "Seine großen Erfolge 4.")
- The chorus of the song is sung by camp counsellors in the horror film, Friday the 13th (1980), which opens with a flashback to 1958.
"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"
- The Incredible Bongo Band recorded the song "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Your Tie's Caught In Your Zipper" (1972).
For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio
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In film and television
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.
In the 1980 film “Friday The Thirteenth” 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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