Tom Dooley (song)

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"Tom Dooley"
Song by The Kingston Trio
Songwriter(s)Thomas Land
Audio sample

"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.[1]

"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.[2][3] In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song, which was misleading in that he did not write it.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.


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 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.[7] 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.[citation needed])

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[2][3] and is still sung today throughout North Carolina.[citation needed]

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[6] 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.[citation needed]

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."[citation needed]

Dula's last name was pronounced "Dooley," leading to some confusion in spelling over the years. The pronunciation of a final "a" like "y" (or "ee") is an old feature in Appalachian speech, as in the term "Grand Ole Opry".[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]


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.[8][9][10][11]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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.[13][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.[14]

Other artists that have recorded versions of the song include Paul Clayton, Line Renaud, Bing Crosby, Jack Narz, Steve Earle, the Grateful Dead, and Doc Watson.


"Tom Dooley" prompted a number of parodies, either as part of other songs or as entire songs. For example:

Chart positions[edit]

For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio[18]

Chart (1958) Peak
Australian Singles Chart 1
Canadian Singles Chart 1
Norwegian Singles Chart 1
Italian Singles Chart 1
South African Charts 8
U.K. Singles Chart 5
US Billboard Hot 100[19] 1
U.S. Billboard Hot R&B Sides[20] 9

All-time charts[edit]

Chart (2018) Position
US Billboard Hot 100[21] 198

In popular culture[edit]

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.

"Tom Dooley" is the name of a season 5 episode of Ally McBeal, in which John Cage sings a version of the song with his Mexican band.

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."

Glada Barn's version of Land's song closes Rectify season 2 episode "Mazel Tov".[22]

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.

Episode 10 of Santo, Sam and Ed's Total Football Podcast is titled "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dula". This naming was in reference to a sample of the song generated by Santo Cilauro whereby he jokingly claimed Tiziano Crudeli had performed a version of Tom Dooley with "The Kingstown Trio". Crudeli's bombastic commentary style on Diretta Stadio afforded him celebrity status in Italy, and audio of Crudli's pronunciation of various footballers' names was a constant running gag throughout the Total Football Podcast.

Song books[edit]

  • Blood, Peter; Patterson, Annie (1992). Rise Up Singing. Amherst, Ma: Sing Out Publications. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-881322-13-9.
  • Lomax, Alan; John A., Lomax (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 October 19, 2010.
  2. ^ a b Waltz, Robert B. & Enge, David G. "Murder of Laura Foster, The [Laws F36]". The Ballad Index. Fresno State University.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "Ask the Marshall: What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine.
  4. ^ Lomax, Alan (1991). Appalachian Journey (PBS American Patchwork Series ed.). Association for Cultural Equity.
  5. ^ Cohen, Ronald (2002). Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970. University Of Massachusetts Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-55849-348-3.
  6. ^ a b c Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 – Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries. Track 5.
  7. ^ Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine.[permanent dead link]
  8. ^ a b Lopresti, Rob (January 17, 2010). "Boy Kills Girl". Tom Dooley. Criminal Brief. Retrieved February 21, 2010.
  9. ^ John Lomax; Alan Lomax, eds. (1947). Folk Song USA. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. ISBN 978-0452253070.
  10. ^ "G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter". Our Musical Heritage– Biographies. Bristol, Tn: Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. September 30, 2007. Archived from the original on June 3, 2011.
  11. ^ "Grayson & Whitter". Artist Biography. CMT. October 18, 2009. Retrieved February 23, 2010.
  12. ^ O'Donnell, Lisa (December 8, 2018). "A Bond of Song: Two men, one from New York and the other from the mountains of North Carolina, formed an enduring friendship that brought the ballad of Tom Dooley out of the hollers and onto mainstream radio". Winston-Salem Journal. Winston-Salem, NC. Retrieved November 29, 2020.
  13. ^ "Oldtime Songs as Oldtime Radio Drama"
  14. ^ Curry, Peter J. "Tom Dooley: The Ballad That Started The Folk Boom". The Kingston Trio Place.
  15. ^ "The Full National Recording Registry". The Library of Congress. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  16. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Award: Past Recipients". The Recording Academy/ Archived from the original on December 24, 2010. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  17. ^ "Capitol Steps rolling along". Chicago Tribune. January 16, 2004. Archived from the original on February 10, 2020. Retrieved February 9, 2020.
  18. ^ Rubeck, Blake, Shaw, et al. The Kingston Trio On Record. Kingston Korner LLC, 1986. p.164.
  19. ^ "The Kingston Trio Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  20. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004. Record Research. p. 328.
  21. ^ "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved January 14, 2019.
  22. ^ "Rectify Season 2 Music Round-up". Sundance TV. August 27, 2015. Archived from the original on December 1, 2017. Retrieved November 22, 2017.