Tom Dooley (song)

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"Tom Dooley"
Song by Thomas Land
Language English
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, 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.[1]

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.[2][3] In the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax inaccurately describes Frank Proffitt as the "original source" for the song.[4] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]


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.

Foster had been Dula's lover before he left for the Civil War as had her cousin, Anne Melton. Although Anne had married an older man named James Melton, during the war, when Dula returned, he became a lover again to both Anne and Laura. Anne's comments led to the discovery of Foster's body, but Melton was acquitted in a separate trial based on Dula's word that Anne had nothing to do with the killing.[5] 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.[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 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.[2][3] Land's song 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. 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."[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" 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]


Several notable recordings have been made:

  • Lonnie Donegan covered The 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.[6]
  • 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 (1997) as a bluegrass song.
  • 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).


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

  • The one-record novelty act called Waldo, Dudley and Dora paradied the song and legend 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".[citation needed]
  • The song has been parodied or used in many television shows, including:
  • Episode #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."
  • "Tom Dooley" is the name of an episode of Ally McBeal (season 5 episode 18), in which John Cage sings a version of the song with his Mexican band.

Chart positions[edit]

For Capitol Records 45 rpm Release #F4049 By The Kingston Trio[15]

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 Waltz, Robert B. & Enge, David G. "Murder of Laura Foster, The [Laws F36]". The Ballad Index (Fresno State University). 
  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. ^ Trimble, Marshall (September 25, 2009). "What is the story behind the folk song 'Tom Dooley?'". True West Magazine. 
  6. ^ a b c Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 - Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles.  Track 5.
  7. ^ a b Lopresti, Rob (2010-01-17). "Boy Kills Girl". Tom Dooley. Criminal Brief. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  8. ^ ed. John & Alan Lomax, ed. (1947). Folk Song USA. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. ISBN 978-0452253070. 
  9. ^ "G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter". Our Musical Heritage– Biographies. Bristol, Tn: Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. 2007-09-30. 
  10. ^ "Grayson & Whitter". Artist Biography. CMT. 2009-10-18. Retrieved 2010-02-23. 
  11. ^ Curry, Peter J. "Tom Dooley: The Ballad That Started The Folk Boom". The Kingston Trio Place.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  12. ^ Wirz, Stefan. "Paul Clayton Discography". American Music.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  13. ^ "The Full National Recording Registry". The Library of Congress. Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Award: Past Recipients". The Recording Academy/ Retrieved May 2, 2010. 
  15. ^ Rubeck, Blake, Shaw, et al. The Kingston Trio On Record. Kingston Korner LLC, 1986. p.164.